Most conservative-establishment pundits formulate Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy as Charles Krauthammer does: Romney aspires to be the last man standing when the major primaries have rendered their verdict next spring. He’s not interested in head-to-head competition with other candidates in the early going. He wants to let them duke it out for the next 8 or 9 months, pumping rounds into their own feet, landing punches on each other’s jawbones, and slicing their own jugulars.
But I’m increasingly convinced that this is a flawed strategy. Romney’s choice to forego the Iowa straw poll is the clearest indication yet that he does intend to wait out as much of the early politicking as possible. And the signal that sends in June 2011 is exactly the wrong one.
It’s a mechanically calculating, “politics as usual” kind of move that comes at the worst possible time. It suggests that Romney, as a presidential candidate in the most peculiar political conditions any American adult can remember, sees no need to talk that over with the people, in a venue in which votes for him are at stake. Americans are worried about where America is headed; Republican and conservative Americans are gravely worried. Alignments within the Republican Party are shifting. Conservatives, registered Republicans, libertarians, Tea Party members, recently-mugged liberals, former low-information independents – all are starting to look around and ask themselves what’s going on.
The American electorate has never, in my lifetime, been this much in the mood for a serious discussion of political ideas and principles. More and more of the people are cottoning to the fact that politics-as-usual is what has gotten us to where we are today. A big element of that is the rote crowning of “obvious” candidates by the GOP (something the Democrats do less of). I don’t see this dynamic as the “knives being out” for establishment candidates. But in the run-up to 2012, even establishment candidates will have to prove themselves.
It’s something more than that, however. In the circumstances of 2011 and 2012, Republican leadership will consist not in waiting around, watching numbers and deciding when to pounce in the primaries, but in engaging the people and giving shape and substance to their concerns. There is not a consensus for a “coronation candidate” to tap into. The divisions, and more importantly, the uncertainties, of some voters about the philosophical future of the GOP – and the USA – are too great this time around. A candidate who wants to win all the marbles is going to have to build his own consensus – and in the process, write the philosophical narrative with which the GOP will approach November 2012.
Romney can’t do that by ignoring the early debates and waiting for New Hampshire. What concerns me about him is that he doesn’t seem to have the political sense to recognize that. There is a disengaged, even high-handed politics-by-rules sclerosis in his approach – and it just doesn’t resonate. He won’t be able to get away with toting all his “issue” baggage – RomneyCare, anthropogenic global warming, flip-flops and ambiguity on abortion and gay marriage – while also declining to submit himself to the hard work of face-to-face politicking and actual votes.
Clever campaign design isn’t what Republican voters are looking for now. 2012 won’t be about that. Fewer GOP voters than ever before are content to project the narratives in their own minds onto the candidates vying for their approval. They want to hear candidates acknowledge their very basic concerns about the future of American liberty and republican government. They want to know that candidates “roger” those concerns and have concrete philosophical ideas – not necessarily or always programmatic ideas or policy soundbites – about what needs to change, in order to foster the future Republicans want. Romney isn’t giving them that, and apparently has no plans to. At this point, I’m not sure he can.