William Buckley famously said that a conservative was someone who stood athwart history yelling stop. Mitt Romney, who says he is "severely conservative," would presumably point at history with a shotgun.
The ad-libbed phrase in Romney's speech to CPAC last Friday was new, but the style was familiar. Romney is an assertion candidate rather than a persuasion candidate. He declares something and voters are meant to believe that it is so. If they don't, his instinct is to say it more—he used the phrase "conservative" 25 times in that same speech—or with greater emphasis—in this case adding the most extreme antonym to the word weak that can be found in the thesaurus. (Remember when he tried to match Gingrich's Obama-bashing by promising he'd stuff capitalism down Obama's throat? Dreadful.)
Anyone who has used a raised voice with a foreigner in the hopes it will make them understand can sympathize. But this hasn't worked with movement conservatives who have consistently been suspicious of Romney. Romney is working hard to connect with this group, but the challenge doesn't end there. Romney's inability to persuade is a threat to his claim that he has the skills to beat Barack Obama. Even if Romney can win the Republican primary, as the smart people in politics assume he still will, he'll have to rely on more than forceful assertion to woo independent voters who are looking for a good reason to cast their votes one way or the other.
But until then, Romney will continue to strain to win over conservatives. In the last PEW survey, where he is tied with Santorum among Republicans nationally, he trails among the party base—among Tea Party voters, conservatives, and evangelical voters. In an American Research Group poll, he now trails Santorum in Michigan, one of Romney's strongest states.
The conservative complaints are well known. They don't like Romney's support of the individual mandate in the Massachusetts health care plan he championed and his shifting position on abortion. Most of all, conservative antagonists worry that he lacks conviction. No matter what he says now, he'll sell out conservatives in office, so the thinking goes. He can proclaim he is a severe conservative as forcefully as he once did that he was a progressive. To solve this problem Romney has offered another proclamation, saying he has been “as consistent as human beings can be.” That's a bold claim—and utterly unpersuasive.
Romney has tried several ways to remind voters that he is a conservative. He talks about his record in Massachusetts—balanced budgets, a rainy-day fund, and efforts to stop same-sex marriage. "I wanted to make sure that people remember the real Mitt Romney, not the one being fabricated by my opponents," he told the National Review Online about his CPAC speech. He talks about his more than 40 years of marriage and his faith. It's a good case but not a slam dunk. Voters who pick his rivals say they are looking for a man who appeals to the heart. Records or position papers don't matter so much. They're looking for a candidate who reflects their world view, can channel it, and shows that he will be a warrior for that world view in the general election. This is what voters across primary states say about Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. It's hard to accomplish that with assertions.
For a while it looked like assertion was all you'd need against Barack Obama. The vote was going to be a referendum on the incumbent. The bad economy meant the voters' judgment would be harsh. Romney was a business guy. He'd show the country his résumé and they'd elect him to turn things around the way he had at the Olympics. The only thing that could save Obama would be an improvement in the economy or an opponent who was objectionable. Right now the numbers are moving in Obama's favor. The economy is looking a little healthier. The Dow average is headed for a record and 243,000 jobs were created last month.
And Romney's numbers are getting worse with voters who need a little persuading. In the most recent Washington Post poll, independent voters had an increasingly negative view of Romney. A recent recent NBC/WSJ poll found a 20-point increase in unfavorable impressions of Romney among independents. In a PEW poll out today, the damage is just as stark. In November, Romney was beating Obama among independents, 53-41. Now those numbers have reversed. Obama is beating Romney 51-42 among independents. That’s a net 19-point swing in a period of heavy GOP-primary activity.
How is Romney going to fix his persuasion problem? First, he's going to have to ignore a lot of the advice he's going to get. There's nothing worse than being the candidate everyone is competing to diagnose. There are enough days between now and the next contests on Feb. 28 in Michigan and Arizona that pundits and GOP strategists are going to get a few laps around the patient's bed. The competition to offer fresh cures for the troubles with Romney's candidacy is going to lead people to suggest everything from leeches to dietary changes. Romney's first task will be to resist changing too much: that will only invite more charges of inauthenticity.
Still, there is some evidence in Romney's recent past that suggests he can solve this problem. He knows how to connect with voters not when he speaks to them but when he becomes an advocate for them. When he says, "I love this country, I hope I made that clear. I didn’t say that as directly as I’d like to: I love America," he is not going to ride that assertion into anyone's heart. It sounds like George H.W. Bush's famous "Message: I care." But in Haleaja, Fla. recently, Romney fired up the crowd in the same way Gingrich and Santorum do. Protesters tried to interrupt his speech. Romney shouted to be heard over them. "We will stand for freedom. We will stand for opportunity," he yelled, pointing his finger at the protesters and hollering. "You can speak as long as you want to. We will not be shouted down by those who would try to change America. We will stand for the America we love." The crowd, which had tried to out-shout the protesters, went nuts when Romney led their charge.
Another example came during the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries when Romney was under fire for his career at Bain and for not releasing his tax returns. For days he gave unsatisfying answers to questions about each. He mumbled. He complained that Newt Gingrich was attacking him the way the Democrats would. It sounded like whining. Finally in Florida Romney found his voice, repeatedly hammering Gingrich for trying to punish him for being successful. The distinction was that he went from being defensive to fighting for a GOP principle. When voters repeated that answer back to me in the following days, what they liked was hearing an idea they already believe in, forcefully put.
The distinction for candidates is sometimes simply the difference between saying you hold a position and letting people hear your reasoning for it. When Al Cardenas introduced Romney to the CPAC crowds last Friday, he read from Romney's press release as governor opposing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. It was an argument about changing the nature of marriage and it was more effective than Romney's assertion minutes later that he had fought same-sex marriage as governor. What Romney said as a presidential candidate wouldn't stick in anyone's mind. What Cardenas said he’d said as governor would.
It is a safe assertion that Mitt Romney is never going to out-perform Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich as the embodiment of conservative passion. He doesn't have to. He simply needs to show that he has access to some of that passion, so that voters can focus on his other good qualities like his leadership experience and his lack of Washington ties. Two qualities that he can simply assert.