The Secret of Mitt Romney’s Success
Smile at the conservatives. Then ignore them.
Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.
If Mitt Romney wins the election, it will be because he ignored conservatives. After he won the primaries, many of the most prominent voices in the movement plead with him to run loud and proud as a conservative and to campaign overtly on conservative ideas. He never did that, and he’s ending the campaign on a moderate note, a move his strategists believe will capture the disaffected Obama voters he needs to win the election.
The strategy appears to render a verdict on a long-standing debate in conservative circles over whether candidates can campaign on conservative ideas like privatizing Social Security, offering Medicare vouchers, or drastically shrinking the social safety net. It also gives us some limited insight into the inner heart of Mitt Romney and how he might govern. At least tactically, he's acted pragmatically, not ideologically.
Starting in the spring and spilling over into the summer, Romney got a regular dose of advice from the most prominent public conservatives: Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. They all counseled him that he couldn’t win on a platform of not being Barack Obama. He had to unfurl the conservative banner, and proclaim these bold ideas from the rooftops. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall vote, it seemed to ratify the idea that a person could govern as an unabashed conservative. Walker said that the one lesson from the recall was that he should have been more open about his plans. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels made a pragmatic rather than political case. Unless Romney explained his conservative solutions as a candidate, he'd never have a mandate for governing.
Romney resisted these appeals for weeks—and then he picked Paul Ryan. For a moment, it suggested that he'd been quietly listening to the conservative commentators all along. Ryan was a twofer. He had put conservative principles in practice and he was a leading advocate of the loud and proud approach. He had been a member of the Romney advice chorus before he was picked. In 2004, when President George Bush pushed for private Social Security accounts, many Republicans thought the idea was toxic. Ryan, however, campaigned on it, arguing when he won that if you bravely backed the idea voters would reward you.
But picking Paul Ryan was not the same as running on Paul Ryan's programs. The Romney campaign boasted that selecting Ryan meant that Romney was making tough decisions and backing conservative solutions, but there was very little evidence that Romney and his campaign were actually going to campaign on those solutions. Medicare is a good example. Romney distanced himself from the details of the Ryan plan—absolving himself of the tricky math questions by arguing that private-sector competition would solve the problem of maintaining quality care while reducing cost. But then he never really ran on the idea itself. Giving a speech in which you savage the president for cutting Medicare is not the same as running on your ideas for the program.
In fact, Paul Ryan seems more changed by running with Mitt than the other way around. How transformed is Ryan? (Politico called him Mini-Mitt) He recently gave a speech on income inequality. That's a far distance from running on conservative principles. This isn't to say that conservatives are not concerned about income inequality—Ryan talked about it before he was a national candidate—but income inequality is not an issue conservatives consider in their wheelhouse. It is often the case that conservatives think that talk of income inequality is an attempt to pit one class against the other. Indeed, Mitt Romney thought this; he once said that talk of income inequality should be confined to "quiet rooms,” and not the campaign trail. When Democrats raised the issue of distribution of wealth and inequality, he claimed they were practicing the “politics of envy.”
Wisconsin Gov. Walker rendered the final verdict on the watering down of Paul Ryan. “I was enthused when Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan because I thought that was a signal that this guy was getting serious, he was getting bold,” Walker told a local radio host. “I just haven’t seen that kind of passion I know that Paul has transferred over to our nominee.” Walker believed that Romney was in synch ideologically with Ryan, but that he wasn’t being vocal enough about it. “They need to have more of him rub off on Mitt, because I think Mitt thinks that way but he’s gotta be able to articulate that,” he said.