Don’t Panic

Always good advice.  Right now, there are a lot of Republicans who need to calm down and maybe make that second cup decaf instead of hi-test.

In the run-up to Iowa, one of the oft-repeated themes was that the presence of Gingrich had made Romney a better candidate, by forcing him to clarify his answers and deal with actual criticism and competition.  If Mitt is smart – and since he’s been running for President for five years, and really seems to want the job, he had better be – he can use the latest Gingrich surge to make himself an even better candidate.

First, let’s acknowledge Gingrich’s deficiencies as a general election candidate.  He doesn’t exactly have the highest Q-rating in the world; seen as angry in 1994, he’s seen as angry today. Americans may be angry, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they want their President to be.  If President Romney would be a tremendous lost opportunity, he can plausibly argue that candidate Gingrich would be worse. A President inclined to run against Congress couldn’t ask for a better foil than a former Speaker.  And while I think Dan McLaughlin has done a credible job of showing that Gingrich is more Fabian than revolutionary in his conservatism, that won’t keep the Dems from rooting through the vast literature of Gingrich writings, Gingrich interviews, Gingrich TV appearances, and off-the-cuff Gingrich comments to reporters to “prove” how radical he is.

However, none of this is helping Romney very much right now, and it would behoove him to understand why.  It’s not just Gingrich’s combativeness in the debates that’s winning him points.  It’s a general trust that he’s capable of articulating a conservative vision on conservative principles, over a broad range of topics.  When Juan Williams tried to turn an economic statement into a racial one, Gingrich pushed back, and answered the question completely without regard to race.  When both Romney and Santorum attacked his promotion of individual Social Security accounts as either unrealistic or undesirable, was there any question who better understood entitlement reform?  Conservatives see that, and are at least intrigued by the idea of having someone in the White House who will make the case, every day, for conservatism.

Romney hasn’t closed the deal with Republicans, even at this late date, because he’s been campaigning on his biography.  His selling point is that as a businessman, he knows something about creating jobs.  That’s great if the economy is still staggering a few months from now.  But if the employment rate drops a another 1.0% or 1.5%, campaigning as a job-creating resume is going to be a lot less effective. (Yes, I know that the unemployment rate is less important than U6 and the labor force participation rate.  You know what?  Nobody cares.  The unemployment rate is important politically for the same reason the Dow Jones Industrial Average is important: it’s a statistic with a memory.)  The problem with nominating people whose biographies fit the moment is that the moment can change or the biography can find itself suddenly vulnerable, and you can find yourself rooting against peace and prosperity, to boot.

The good news for Romney is that with all the primaries and caucuses before April now proportional, the race is designed to go on longer.  If he can explain why it makes no sense to claim to love capitalism while hating capital markets, he can reassure Republicans that it’s not all a pose.  If he shows he can articulate not only why Republican candidates should be pro-business, but why Americans should be pro-capitalism, he’ll win going away.  If he can explain why common American principles should lead Americans to support someone with his experience and ideas, he’ll be a much stronger candidate and eventually, a much stronger President.

The fact that Romney is getting tested this way in the primary, and that the nomination is, as of this writing, still very much in doubt, has got to be frustrating, but it’s all of a piece.  By hoping to parley a weak front-runner status, bolstered by establishment support, into being everyone’s second choice, he’s allowed the nominating process to become a referendum on his fitness to represent the party and its ideals.  He’s won minds but not hearts.  And just as campaigning is about more than the written and unwritten rules, so governing is about more than technical and managerial proficiency.

The situation has got to be equally frustrating to Gingrich supporters, inasmuch as Gingrich the foil is still preferable to Gingrich the nominee for most Republicans.

But for Gingrich the professor, teaching profound political lessons to Mitt Romney may end up being his most valuable contribution.

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