Mitt Romney & The Republican Party’s Impossible Balancing Act: Report From 20 Paws Ranch

It must be hard getting up every morning trying to decide who you’re going to be that day.
~ John F. Kennedy on Richard Nixon, 1960

With the primary season pandering finally behind them, the Republican Party in general and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney in particular face an all but impossible balancing act: Being mindful of the interests of a party base that has evolved into a welter of angry Tea Partiers, self-righteous evangelicals and hard core right-wingers with nutty ideas while trying to court mainstream voters and independent women in particular who have shown little affinity for the GOP’s social and economic platforms.

Some historic perspective here: Romney enters the post-primary campaign season with the weakest favorability rating on record for a presumptive presidential nominee in ABC News/Washington Post polls since 1984 and trails a resurgent Barack Obama in personal popularity by a whopping 21 percentage points in one poll. This on top of Romney’s tepid showings in primaries last week despite the fact that Rick Santorum, his chief challenger, had stopped campaigning.

Other polls have Romney closer to the president and the occasional daily tracking poll shows him ahead by a nose, but none of them take into account his not-so-silent partner — the House Republican caucus with its coddle the rich and screw everyone else mantra, and that will be an albatross around Romney’s neck through to Election Day no matter how hard he flip-flops.

The crux of the balancing act is this: Can Romney appear moderate enough to attract the independents he needs to win without alienating the leaders of the House caucus, who in turn will be hectored by those rebellious freshmen who rode anti-Washington antipathy to victory in 2010? In other words, is Romney trapped by his base?

Put another way, does Romney really believe in what Nobel prize-winning economist and pundit Paul Krugman calls the confidence fairy. The confidence fairy rewards policy makers — in this case House Republicans — for their fiscal virtue, but in reality and as we know, the confidence fairy is a myth.

Romney has a further handicap that he has shown no sign of overcoming: Defensiveness over his immense wealth and an inability to break out of the bubble world of the super rich in which he and his wife live.

Had Romney and his advisers been more in tune with how many voters will view him, he would have pulled out funds invested in offshore havens like the Cayman Islands and Switzerland long before that became an issue, as well as put off a $12 million renovation to his La Jolla home, which includes a car elevator, so that didn’t become an issue. And a head’s up here: With the warmer weather will come May Day and the reincarnation of Occupy Wall Street. Romney will be squarely in their cross hairs.

Romney doesn’t necessarily have to connect with average Joes and Janes to get elected, but in abandoning cultural and economic moderation in hearting the hardcore Republican Party line and surprisingly showing little sign of Etch A Sketching back toward the center, he is extremely vulnerable to attacks from Obama and his surrogates whether it’s over something silly like his wife having two Cadillacs or more serious concerns like his support of the Paul Ryan budget plan.

Finally, beyond the balancing act is Romney’s character.

I’m with commentator Charles Blow when he say that he has no personal gripe with him: “I don’t believe him to be an evil man. Quite the opposite: he appears to be a loving husband and father. Besides, evil requires conviction, which Romney lacks. But he is a dangerous man. Unprincipled ambition always is. Infinite malleability is its own vice because it’s infinitely corruptible by others of ignoble intentions.”

There is perhaps no one better at unprincipled ambition in American politics than puppet master Karl Rove, who is back from the dead with a gadzillion dollar super PAC to bankroll Romney in his quest to assault American democracy in much the same way that Rove’ star pupil George W. Bush did.

Shaun Mullen is an award winning journalist and blogger. “Report From 20 Paws Ranch,”
which is the name of his mountain hideaway, appears on Mondays
.

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  • http://www.deanesmay.com DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

    Who would have thought all these years later people are still obsessed with Karl Rove? As if Democrats don’t have smart, ruthless strategists of their own, and their own SuperPACs?

    The endless drumbeat from some circles that Republicans are “out of touch” with mainstream values continues to be belied by the fact that they keep winning elections. Sure, they only hold most of the nation’s Governorships, most of the nation’s state legislatures, the House of Representatives, are at near-parity in the Senate, and look set to consolidate their hold on the House and possibly take control of the Senate come November, and maybe win the Presidency, but they sure are marginalized!

    The problem with these analyses is that they ignore how much the hard left continues to bedevil and plague mainstream Democrats (like Obama). If you can’t see that this happens you’re in for a rude awakening come November. While I’m entirely sympathetic to the cause of the Occupy Wall Street crowd (I really am), it would be foolish not to notice that they annoy a lot of mainstream Americans who aren’t particularly ideological. Many of the “Occupy” crowd and their supporters are apparently blind to this truth, but it’s true whether we like it or not. The louder the Occupy crowd is, the better you can expect Romney to do.

    Will the Tea Party be equally loud in response? At this point I doubt it; they’re more focused on a win than they are on making noise. But maybe they’ll surprise us. Lucky for Obama if they do.

    In the meantime, a salient fact about American politics remains that when it comes to the Presidency, most voters pay very little attention to party affiliation. Romney doesn’t have to run by defending the House or the Senate Republican leadership. Hell he can run outright attacking them if he wants to. He almost certainly won’t do that, but the point is that he could. He doesn’t need to appease them, or appease the Tea Partiers, or appease anybody but centrists and even some liberals; those right-wing voters are not going to vote for Obama. They’re just not. Romney has to do little to appease them except not be named Obama.

    You want a losing strategy for Democrats? Here’s what it looks like:

    Make the race about the Republican leadership in the Congress. Try your best to tie Mitt Romney to them whenever possible. This will have one effect: it will make dedicated Republican-haters very happy, and will make everyone else ignore you and help Romney to win.

    You want to beat Romney? Here’s what you do: you run against Mitt Romney.

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist

    Dead:

    Readers here and me in particular are well aware that your telescope is calibrated Left and Right. (Mine has a few more settings.) And if this post was about ruthless Democratic strategists or ruthless strategists in general, I would have mentioned James Carville, Rahm Emanuel and others.

    But this is not what the post is about. It is about Romney’s balancing act, which you do not address and I will assume you agree with.

    I don’t think that Obama is dumb enough to run against Boehner, Cantor and Ryan. I think he is smart enough to run against an extremist, hard right-wing Republican dominated Supreme Court if it overturns the Affordable Care Act. And we well know that the court is doing the bidding of the Boehners, Cantors and Ryans, no?

  • zephyr

    “The problem with these analyses is that they ignore how much the hard left continues to bedevil and plague mainstream Democrats (like Obama).”

    Dean, your youth may be showing. “Mainstream Democrats” are today’s moderates. Those you refer to as “hard left” are nothing more than average liberals of yesterday. Apparently the new paradigm has been shifted long enough now that newbies think it’s the norm. It’s not.

    I’m still wondering how Romney is going to wrestle with the choice of a VP. I think he will need to be very, very careful in that endeavor…

  • http://www.deanesmay.com DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

    Shaun: I was not aware that you were empowered to speak for “readers here.” ;-)

    If you had referred to David Axelrod, James Carville, or Rahm Emmanuel as “puppet masters” who were bankrolling Obama’s quest to “assault American Democracy” I would also express amusement. In any case, such rhetoric about Rove almost made me nostalgic: it felt like 2004 all over again. ;-)

    Gratuitous condescension about telescope settings aside, you didn’t answer anything I said. But perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in why what I wrote applied to what you wrote. So let me be clearer:

    Mitt Romney doesn’t have a delicate balancing act to do anymore. He already went through that, just like every other successful candidate for a major party nomination. It isn’t quite over until he’s got the magic number of 1138 delegates, but right now all he has to do to reach that magic number is stay disciplined and avoid any major mistakes. He is showing just such discipline. He still has one foot on the tightrope but soon will have both feet and arms akimbo, flat on the ground, once the 1138th delegate is in his column. The balancing act is all but over. He’s about ready to take a bow for it. And now here’s what it looks like to me:

    1) Most voters don’t care about a Presidential candidate’s party most of the time. Thus tying a Presidential candidate to his party isn’t a very good strategy.

    2) Trying to tie Romney to the congressional Republicans will not impress anybody but people who already hate the congressional Republicans. Most people don’t hate Congressional Republicans, they hate the Congress–a centuries-old American tradition by the way.

    3) Romney doesn’t have to do anything to get the hard right’s votes. His only job with them is to not be named Barack Obama. They’re otherwise his votes. He can now merely throw them the occasional bone and concentrate on everyone else.

    Is Romney unprincipled? I confess I have a hard time recalling any major Presidential candidate, or President, of whom that was not said (including the sainted JFK by the way). To look at what his critics say, it appears that President Obama either has the principles of a Communist, of George W. Bush, or has no principles at all and is a puppet of Wall Street or secret Marxists, take your pick.

    In any case, I can’t think of anyone who’s ever been elected President who has not changed his stance on any major issues. The “unprincipled” charge gets leveled at everyone who runs, and especially at whoever wins, because no President can consistently stick to principles once in the Big Chair. Can’t be done. Rhetoric, action, and principle don’t always match because they can’t; even though conservatives won’t admit it much, even the sainted Reagan went against his stated principles any number of times. (Although once again, I can’t think of a President in my lifetime who didn’t. Gerald Ford maybe?)

    From the standpoint of winning votes, all Mittens has to do is ignore congressional Republicans, and shrug off anyone who tries to tie him to them. Nobody but political junkies and diehard partisans pays attention to them.

    For his changing stances, really: successful, principled politicians don’t change their opinions on things like abortion, gay marriage, detainees at Guantanamo, the death penalty, etc.?

    I don’t think Mitt Romney is less principled than your average politician. I don’t think he is waging an assault on American democracy. I don’t think he has a delicate balancing act to do anymore, or that the balancing act is over.

    There is the matter of his low approval ratings. I didn’t address that one: they aren’t very relevant. Not right now anyway. Most of that has to do with the fact that a whole lot of people who will vote for him in November don’t like him much. Which he hasn’t got much reason to care about, since they’re going to vote for him anyway. Otherwise, he’s just getting through a bruising primary struggle that most Americans aren’t paying any attention to at all. The vast majority of people will not begin paying attention to any of this until the conventions roll around. Then, what his approval rating looks like will be relevant, not before.

    My prediction for you is that his approval rating will be up at least 10 points by Tampa. But we’ll see what we see.

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist

    Dean:

    What zephyr said.

    You are spot on except for Romney’s approval numbers being up at least 10 points by the convention. Romney in my view has peaked because he is such a weak candidate and only a major gaffe on the part of Obama, Israel becoming unhinged or another world crisis, will enable him to surge, let alone surge to the point that he can beat Obama.

    A final thought: Romney has been campaigning hard for 15 months. Obama has only just begun. Look out.

  • http://www.deanesmay.com DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

    Zephyr: One thing I usually find is that it’s hazardous to psychoanalyze or condescend to others on personal matters. I don’t think my age is relevant, but if you care, I’ll be 46 in July. But if I’m to return the mindreading act in kind, let’s look at this assertion:

    “Mainstream Democrats” are today’s moderates. Those you refer to as “hard left” are nothing more than average liberals of yesterday.”

    I know people who hate liberals and moderates who talk that way, and I know people who love liberals who talk that way. It’s a fascinating assertion. In my experience, the only type of person likely to make it would be a Baby Boomer, i.e. someone older than me, but younger than my grandfather. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re somewhere between age 55 and 70. If I had to bet harder, I’d guess about 66. How did I do?

    In any case, I’ve been studying political history for a long, long time. Ideologue liberals took over the Democratic Party in the 1970s, led by older Democrats who were never really of them–McGovern for example was never really a McGovernite. Once the liberal ‘boomers were the Democratic Establishment, they tended to (and still tend to) retroactively ascribe a form of liberalism to the previous generation that doesn’t always match the facts.

    There was a counter-takeover by the Boomers of the Republican Party in the 1980s (where I cast my first vote for President, for Walter Mondale as it happens), reaching its apex in the 1990s.

    Now we see a struggle for the Republican Party by these same aging Boomers and some of their kids, which is what the Tea Party represents. Meh. What’s old is new again. And we’re also seeing a replay of the early 1970s, at least so far: the collective liberal myth of today is that somehow, Richard Nixon was driven from power by hippy protestors. I mean, they factually know better, but there’s this weird pretense where they seem to think it’s true even though they know it isn’t. They only acknowledge it when they’re confronted with it: most people back then hated hippies, and most people now still hate hippies. Tying McGovern to hippies is what helped Tricky Dick get re-elected in a landslide, although it’s remarkable how easy it is for some ‘Boomers to forge that obvious fact.

    (Oh, by the way, I’m a hippy, in case you hadn’t noticed.)

    Occupy Wall Street, the louder it is, is going to be a serious problem for President Obama. All Romney has to do is make snotty comments about them to win over large swaths of Americans. And Obama will be in a bit of a pickle about them himself, not at all unlike McGovern (and to a lesser extent Humphrey). So when it comes to Occupy Wall Street, Shuan Mullen said this:

    With the warmer weather will come May Day and the reincarnation of Occupy Wall Street. Romney will be squarely in their cross hairs.

    To which Romney’s response should be “please don’t throw me in that briar patch!” Ha! Are you kidding? OWS is going to be Obama’s problem, not Romney’s.

    And I say that, again, as someone who is sympathetic to OWS. They’re replaying 1972 all over again, and hoping for a better outcome. Then as now, it won’t work, because energy tied to incoherence and refusal to take showers is not a winning political strategy, then or now.

    You are right by the way that Romney’s choice of VP is crucial. The ideal VP candidate is someone who can significantly add to the ticket. In Romney’s case, the ideal choice would have been Mike Hucakabee if he were available (which he isn’t). Thus the thing he’s most likely to do is pick a dull, uncontroversial Senator or Governor, some Republican equivalent of Joe Biden. Maybe someone a little more conservative than him, to appease the Santorum/Gingrich/etc. voters, but I’m not sure he even needs to do that.

  • http://www.deanesmay.com DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

    Shaun: I’ll wager you a dollar Romney’s approval rating goes up by 10 points by the end of June, because he’s not particularly unlikeable, and because most Americans don’t pay attention to Presidential politics until the conventions. Those of us who watch these things obsessively are a weird form of nerd; most voters are not paying attention, even go out of their way to avoid paying attention, until we get much closer to the campaign.

    In fact I’ll make it even more interesting: one dollar says Romney’s approval rate hits 45% by end of June.

    That’s actually more than 10 points. Take my bet? Loser has to post something on the front page of The Moderate Voice and mail a dollar to the winner. ;-)

  • http://www.deanesmay.com DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

    August! August! I meant by end of August, not June!

    Although actually a rise to 45% by end of June wouldn’t surprise me, my bet is predicated on the aftermath of the conventions.

  • zephyr

    Dean, condescension has nothing to do it. Zip. Nada. Increased years (I’m 60 naturally give one a wider historical perspective (assuming attention is being paid), whereas youth (a relative term I know) is conversely more limited in scope. That the political spectrum has been shifting over the decades is more obvious to some of us than it is to others. Living through the changes isn’t quite the same as reading about them and deciding which parts resonate best for you.

  • Rcoutme

    I think Dean and Michael are both sort of right (and also sort of wrong). Mitt will not have to worry about those on the Right voting for Obama; they won’t. On the other hand, he DOES have to worry about getting them to vote for him (they might simply stay home). It is the “Get out the vote” part that is the balancing act. Mitt does not need to run “against” congressional Republicans. He needs to run against Obama. From what I have seen, the far right are so incensed about Obama that they will need only a little incentive to get out and vote.

    Thus: if Romney tries to make this election about a ‘failed’ Obama presidency, he has a decent shot of winning. He can not win on his platform–it is ludicrous. He can not win on his record–he has run away from it. He has to convince people that Obama has not delivered. He probably should keep quiet about the possibility that no one could have delivered better during that time.

  • http://www.deanesmay.com DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

    Zephyr: One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that living through events tends to both enrich and warp your perspective, because you only saw things from your point of view and not that of your adversaries, or those who were outside that frame of reference. I know far more about the politics of the 1990s today than I did when I was living in them, for example.

    The more you study history, the more you can see how “being there” both enhances and warps your perspective. Sometimes in very advanced age we see this most clearly: see how Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, once bitter enemies, came to be the best of friends late in life.

    See also the little-known fact that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are good friends. That’s been a very little-known fact for a long time.

    There is also a tendency–I’ve fallen prey to this–to mythologize the politics of those who came just before us. I would hazard that Ronald Reagan has far more fans today than he did when he was President, and an awful lot of them are people who were too young to have voted for him.

    While you might have been there for the politics of the 1970s, you were not really there for the politics of the 1950s or most of the 1960s. You just weren’t. You weren’t even old enough to vote until 1970. If I had to wager, you cast your first vote for President for McGovern, and were annoyed when Tricky Dick beat the snot out of him. What you may not have been aware of at the time is that most people in the 18-to-25 age bracket in 1972 (i.e. exactly your age) voted for Nixon, not McGovern. That’s something you only learn from studying history.

    In any case, I maintain that the left fringe is a headache for mainstream Democrats. I further contend that both parties are suffering from their own fringes at the moment. It was a problem for the Democrats throughout the entire era of George W. Bush, quite obviously so. It’s a bigger headache for Republicans at the moment, although Occupy Wall Street looks likely to even the score on that since they will be a huge problem for Obama (and not, as Shaun suggests, for Romney, whose best strategy will be to condescend to them and say things like “take a shower and get a job!”). You watch. It’s Obama who’ll have trouble with them, not Romney. The harder they go after Romney, the better Romney will do.

  • http://www.deanesmay.com DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

    Rcoutme: Get Out The Vote will be a big part of the November fight without question. But only in the battleground states.

    Romney’s run a tightly disciplined, very well strategized campaign from the very beginning, and shows every sign of continuing in that mode. So he knows how important GOTV is going to be. You can expect him to put a lot into it, just like Obama.

    You should also watch as Romney’s ideological adversaries rally hard behind him by convention time. Because they will.

    As for the notion that Romney’s platform is ludicrous: when I look at it (you can find it here on jobs and economic growth, here on foreign policy, and here on the role of government, I see little there to call ludicrous. I see much there that I disagree with, which is why he probably can’t get my vote, but calling it ludicrous would strike me as a strategic error if you want him to be defeated. Just my opinion, but one of liberals’ greatest faults is to simply say their opponents are dumb. It’s an often fatal weakness in my view.

  • Rcoutme

    Well…reading through most of his government proposals, about the only one I can agree with is the Social Security one. Slowly raising the age of eligibility and providing a lower benefit to the very wealthy are not really controversial and are probably useful.

    If one looks into the other proposals it looks pretty unsound. Eliminate regulations to protect investors–yeah, that ought to spur on investment.

    Cut taxes on the very wealthy in order to get them to invest–yeah, because they are just looking at their piles of money right now. They need an INCENTIVE to do something else with it.

    Gut environmental regulations–we have way too little pollution. Besides, circumventing the SCOTUS requirement to regulate carbon emissions is so much fun.

    Under Mitt it’s going to be such a fun time!

  • chris87654

    Interesting to watch Romney battle sectors within the Republican party – major splits occured by Tea Parties and they’ll be hard to overcome. Anything he does to appease “conservatives” (many of whom would rather put pokers in their eyes than vote for someone they consider mainstream, establishment, elite, blue-blood, or RINO) should get fragged when he tries to appeal to Indy’s or crossover Dems. Romney’s problem is the same as all Republicans – they can’t present any plans for solution because they’ll cater to the top 1-2% of earners, while nailing the other 98-99% of voters (including Republicans peons). Their “solution” is to keep their minions ignorant and distracted with criticism, buzzwords, and threadbare one-liners – problem is, while their “base” feeds on this, normal voters find it boring.

    PS – thanks to other poster for posting Romney’s SS plan – sounds good to me too. Makes one wonder why Republicans haven’t been promoting this as a unified plan for solution.