Why Mitt Romney can't beat Obama
As I write this the inevitability of Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee for President still seems to be probable. As of now, early February, it is still possible for Rick Santorum, and an even longer shot of Newt Gingrich, to pull an upset and win the race but a more likely result of their continuing to nip at Romney's heels would be for the race to go all the way to the Republican National Convention and there to be an inner party fight that would lead to a weaker GOP overall and Romney being chosen by the Republican establishment anyway.
It is partially a sign of Romney's lacking as a candidate that he has failed to put his opponents down by now but it is also a sign of the internal tensions in the Republican party. There is a rift between corporatist Republicans and the Tea Party, economic conservatives and social conservatives. It would take a candidate who could unite all of them together and have appeal outside of the party to beat President Obama in the general election match up. This is a pretty tall order and Romney falls far short of it.
Still, the pundits predict that this race will be close. They are wrong. If Gingrich or Santorum were to get the nomination it would be a blow out. Many within the party might even defect to Obama to prevent either of these men from becoming President and independents that lean Republican would not find them very appealing. Romney can at least manage to not alienate certain sections of the base so much that they would rather vote for Obama than vote for him. He isn't overwhelmingly popular but he still can hold the Republican party together at a time when it is threatening to split apart.
Unfortunately, Romney does not have the elements that appeal to that forty percent of voting Americans who actually decide elections, the independent voters. This is a core part of his problem. Romney is argued to be the "most electable" candidate and that may be true, in this very weak field, but only in the absolute worst case scenario for Obama could Romney really give him a challenge. What follows is an analysis.
Romney's Strengths and Weaknesses
To the Republican electorate, Romney has the main strength of his successful business experience. Also, the main weakness he has is an inability to appeal to social conservatives, due to his relatively moderate stances of social issues as governor of Massachusetts. This weakness would actually be a strength in the general election, since independent voters would likely be more moderate to progressive on social issues but also find Romney's business experience appealing. Unfortunately, Romney's time at Bain Capital has already become a liability even in the Republican primary. Ted Kennedy used the fact that Romney had bought companies and sliced them up to make personal profits for himself to destroy him in a run for senate in Massachusetts. Newt Gingrich used the same tactic when running against Romney and it proved to be effective even in the blindly pro capitalism Republican party and damaged Romney, and the Republican platform, so much that Gingrich was pressured to back off. Obama will not have such pressure in the general election and if that could hurt Romney in the Republican primary it will be even worse in a general election.
In a way, Romney is the perfect foil for Obama. He pays a tax rate much lower than the average American, despite being the third richest man ever to run for President. When comparing Obama's insistence that we tax the wealthy more and Romney's wealth, earned from capital gains, and plans to cut taxes for the rich even more, Romney is on the losing side of this issue. This would matter less if Romney could sell his own narrative but he has been inept at doing so.
What I mean by this is that all Presidential candidates are rich. What they do to counteract this is to sell a narrative that makes them more appealing to the average voter. One of the most amazing examples of this was George W. Bush. Bush was the son of a former President, came from a long line of oil tycoons, went to both Yale and Harvard business school but sold himself as a Texas everyman, a political outsider and reformer and won his parties nomination and the general election. Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan fashioned similar narratives for themselves, which aren't altogether honest about the advantages they all had in getting where they ended up, but were compelling and interesting to voters.
Romney's narrative is that he is a "self made businessman", who bought struggling businesses and reorganized them to make them profitable again. He claims that his interest in politics is solely concerned with Americans and the problems that they face and not personal motives. You can attack this narrative at every turn. "Self made" is hard to make the case for when you are the son of a millionaire, even though Romney did give his inheritance away (more on that later) but still benefited from his fathers wealth and connections to get an education, be successful in business and enter politics. His time at Bain Capital has already been attacked. His narrative is no more preposterous than other Presidents but the problem is he doesn't act like an everyman or come off as concerned for the majority of Americans.
In short, Romney is a cold fish. He has made gaffe after gaffe that has been used to portray him as out of touch. He has claimed that "Corporations Are People" proudly and without reservation, even though it is a fact that over 80% of Independent voters disagree with this statement. And then there is the dog thing. Romney himself told a story in which he had taken his family on a trip to Canada and strapped the family dog Seamus on the roof of the car. When the dog defecated, and it ran down the back of the car, Romney merely stopped, hosed the dog down and put him right back on the roof. The most mind boggling thing about this story is that it came from the Romney family themselves and was told to a reporter to "humanize" Romney in the eyes of voters. A group "Dogs Against Romney" has established a strong presence on the internet and will probably be even more well known by the time the general election comes around.
Another indicator of how bad Romney is at selling himself is his debate performances. Anybody who watched the 2008 campaign knows how easily John McCain destroyed Mitt Romney in debates. McCain's "you are the candidate of real change" quip at Romney, in reference to his flip flopping, is probably the single best quip any of the Republican candidates had and it essentially deflated Romney within a matter of seconds. When Romney came back to run this time he had not learned much.
The only reason that Romney's weaknesses at debating were not instantly apparent is because in the beginning his opponents were reluctant to attack him. The other Republican canidates were instead fighting each other and this allowed Romney to just sit back and watch them destroy each other. His first real battle was with Rick Perry, who quickly shot himself in the foot and then finished the job on himself by continuing to have embarrassing debate performances one after the other. The next fight was with Newt Gingrich, and Gingrich simply destroyed Romney in the early debates that they went head-to-head, leading many to have a misconception that Gingrich was a master debater.
In reality, Gingrich is a horrible debater. He uses ad hominem attacks, straw men and pseudo intellectual pompousness to try and bully his opponent but he is such an arrogant hypocrite that taking him down would be an easy task. Even though this is true, Romney seemed baffled at how to debate Newt before South Carolina and this led to the trashing he received there, even though he had been ahead in the polls just a week before the primary. When Romney got a new debate coach, he suddenly learned to take down Newt and this helped him trounce him in Florida. The problem is that Romney will have to take on Obama, who bested McCain in debates, the guy who batted Romney away like a fly when they ran against each other four years ago.
With a very narrow number of undecided voters tipping elections sometimes, debates still matter and Romney will be clobbered by Obama. Republicans love to compare Obama to Jimmy Carter and as bad as this analogy is, it is even worse to compare Romney to Ronald Reagan. This is my single favorite Reagan debate moment in the side video. He not only defends himself, attacks Mondale but comes off likeable and makes even Mondale laugh all in a few seconds. Could you imagine Romney ever having a performance that was even close to that few seconds of Reagan?
THE CULTURE WARS
The rift between economic and social conservatives was present in the last election. It was the reason that the moderate John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. For Romney there is a perceived need to try and appease this wing of the Republican party, even though the concerns of this wing rubs independents the wrong way and pushes the perception of the party as a whole away from a position that could help them woo independent voters that voted for Obama last time. Many believe that the choice of Sarah Palin was a big factor in McCain's loss in the previous election. There are also many conservatives who claim the reason that McCain lost was that he was not "conservative enough" and McCain was actually helped by having a conservative "firebrand" like Palin on the ticket with him.
This delusion, within a party that has become increasingly known for delusion, could yield similar results as last time. Romney has tried to avoid too much emphasis on social issues but he has already said enough things about contraception, abortion, gay marriage and medical marijuana to all but insure that he would have no chance at winning in his home state of Massachusetts. Not being able to win in a blue state even though you were a governor from that state defeats the whole purpose of nominating a New England Republican in the first place. Bill Clinton was from the south and was able to bring Southern states, that normally vote Republican, into the Democrat column. Al Gore lost even his home state of Tennessee and lost the election. Not being able to win your home state is a disaster for a Presidential nominee.
Even though he has tried to woo social conservatives, who each election make up a smaller and smaller section of the vote in both the Republican and Democratic party (yes there are social conservative Democrats, especially in the south.) Romney will still be expected to pick a vice presidential pick that will please them, the conservative populist tea party or hopefully both. There will be a strong lobby for him to pick Rick Santorum, though I think the best person he could possibly pick would be Marco Rubio, a tea party candidate, a Hispanic politician who could swing that vote more toward the Republicans and from a swing state, Florida, that is crucial for Romney to win. Anybody else but Rubio would have liabilities that Romney, with his own huge liabilities, simply cannot afford.
Even Rubio would have his faults though and I don't think any vice presidential pick could save Romney. That is because the culture wars are starting to tip toward the Democrats side and nobody in the Republican party has gotten the memo. The wedge issue that is really coming to a head is gay marriage. Polls have shown a huge leap in public acceptance of same sex marriage all over the country and while the Democratic process has not given it the stamp of approval in many states, we are actually reaching that point.
While Santorum is the candidate who wears his disdain for gay rights on his sleeve the most, Romney also has a huge problem with it. He recently bragged about fighting hard to make sure that out of state couples in Massachusetts could not get married there. In addition, one defense of Romney's tax rates was made with the amount of money that he gives to charity. A problem with this defense, and a reason it wasn't shouted more loudly, is that the vast majority of this money was given to the LDS Church and they spend a lot of that money forwarding social conservative causes, including bans on same sex marriage.
The last thing Romney wants is for this battle to be about his religion but an emphasis on culture warrior mentality could mean just that. Obama has not come out in support of same sex marriage either but at least he hasn't given millions to an organization that actively tries to defeat it. While gay rights advocates are going after Romney on this issue there will probably be more emphasis on other Mormon related issues like baptisms of the dead and why Romney's family fled to Mexico. Baptizing the dead has already infuriated Jewish Americans and might rub many other people the wrong way once they find out more about it.
Obama's Strengths and Weaknesses
Even though Mitt Romney is a flawed candidate most Republicans don't think it matters. They argue that this election will be a referendum on Obama and that his policies have failed. The fact is that this simply isn't true. Since Obama has taken office he has stopped the shedding of jobs and put together a record of consistent growth. Unemployment has gone down almost a whole percentage point in just the past six months. In fact, Obama's recovery has been just as strong as Reagan's recovery while he was dealing with a worse recession and if things continue on this course then economic attacks on Obama are going to be hollow. The majority of Americans agree more with Obama's ideas about the economy than the Republican ideas and that is not about to change.
Another major attack on Obama is his healthcare bill. This is another complete disaster for Romney. First, while the idea of a mandate is controversial among voters, other parts of the bill, such as insurance companies not being able to turn down people for preexisting conditions and staying on your parents insurance until 26, are pretty popular with the general public. Furthermore, this reform is not a far left socialist plan like the GOP claims. In fact, this identical type of plan has been advocated for in the past by Richard Nixon, The Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich and Romney himself. It is only after it was actually passed by the Democrats that it suddenly became unacceptable. Romney's attempts to justify the differences between his and Obama's healthcare reforms are pretty much pathetic.
So once economic and cultural issues have gone out the window what is left? The answer is national security. I am very displeased with Obama's decisions to keep Guantanamo Bay open and his keeping in line with many policies of the Bush administration but this makes the idea that he is soft on terror absolutely ludicrous when the Republicans claim it. The only candidate who is making real criticisms of Obama on this front is Ron Paul and the others are reveling in stupidity.
Obama has already ended the war in Iraq and promised an end in Afghanistan. The Republicans by contrast have called this a mistake and had us looking toward Iran. They have been practically framing the election as a vote for Obama as being against invasion of Iran and a vote for Romney, or any Republican, as a vote for an Iran invasion. While war time Presidents have seen their chances of re-election go up, no President has ever won by promising more war than the other candidate.
One of the things that this has resulted in was an unapologetic return to the policies and even the arguments of George W. Bush. When John McCain was the Republican nominee he said that the party had lost its way. This was a backhanded apology for the havoc Bush had wrecked on us all and many Republicans attacked him for even this indirect apology. So my main and final point about Romney is this, he promises a return to the policies of George W. Bush, the third term we never had and this is the stupidest move any candidate could make.