Can Romney Make a Credible Pivot to the Center?

02.22.12

Can Romney Make a Credible Pivot to the Center?

02.22.12
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To secure the GOP nomination, former Gov. Mitt Romney has had to make a hard shift to the right to convince social, economic and foreign policy conservatives that he’s their guy and can be trusted to uphold their values in the general election against President Obama. The shift has been transparent and increasingly awkward for a politician who many consider to be personally awkward. Romney’s button down persona has been described as square and to the right of cool. Romney backers would counter that personal flair and style should not be a consideration in the voting booth. However, since elections can be decided on factors like Nixon’s awkward debate appearance against John F. Kennedy, visuals do play a part in deciding elections.

Juxtaposed against Obama who sang lines from “Sweet Home Chicago” with BB King, Mic Jagger, and Buddy Guy who were in attendance at an event at the White House and his unsolicited singing of the Rev. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” during a fundraising stop at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, Romney would be Obama’s alternative personality in a parallel universe. “Daily Show” host, Jon Stewart, joked with David Letterman, “If you were to design something to be a president, that’s what you would make it (Romney) look like,” Stewart said. Adding, Romney’s “like pixels. I think if you look at him closely, it’s zeroes and ones…He puts on jeans, but you know he’s got his suit pants underneath it.”

In modern campaigns for the White House, Republicans have, by and large, gone to the right during primaries only to eventually shift back to the middle to win over independents. Richard Nixon and Sen. John McCain shifted right and Mitt Romney is following suit. Similarly, while Richard Nixon argued that he would end the Vietnam War if elected, Romney claims he can fix the economy if elected. Undercutting his sole argument why he would make a better president than Obama is the fact that the economy has begun to recover in earnest, which negates his argument why he should occupy the White House in January of 2013.

Striking many as an odd argument, was Romney’s recent speech to a business roundtable in Nevada outside of Reno, where he suggested, “This recovery has been slower than it should have been, people have been suffering for longer than they should have had to suffer. Will it get better? I think it’ll get better. I don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Romney said. “We got good news this morning on job creation in January. I hope that continues, we get people back to work.”

Aside from the economy, Romney has increasingly leveled that Obama has come up short on foreign policy and interestingly, has chosen to argue that the Obama administration is waging war on Christianity. For a politician increasingly uncomfortable with discussing his own Mormon faith, this strategy could backfire in November. Romney’s strategy of shifting right on social and domestic issues like illegal immigration, was born out of the necessity to undercut Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who both at times held the top spot in polls. Hispanic voters, a key demographic in the general election, will potentially be alienated by Romney’s posturing on illegal immigration.

Romney’s decision to wade into the contraceptive debate reflects the surge in the polls of his most recent upstart opponent, former Sen. Rick Santorum. During the controversy surrounding Susan G. Komen’s decision to pare back grants to Planned Parenthood, Romney argued that it was the right decision in light of the fact that Planned Parenthood does provide low-cost abortion services. Romney even went further by arguing that the Federal government should stop funding Planned Parenthood altogether. Taken together, his stance on illegal immigration and Planned Parenthood, Romney has now alienated women and Hispanic voters.

Importantly, Romney seemingly forgot that he was once an outspoken pro-choice candidate while running for governor of Massachusetts. Besides attending a Planned Parenthood fundraiser in Cohasset, Massachusetts in 1994, Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, wrote a check for $150 to the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.

The challenges Romney faces are daunting should he secure the GOP nomination. He will have to balance competing interests in his own party while trying to assure independents that his policies are not as extreme as those advocated during the primary contests. “Romney’s twin challenges are to unify the Republican base, where significant elements remain unconvinced of the strength of his conservative philosophy, while at the same time not genuflecting so much that he can’t appeal to the independent vote that will ultimately decide the election,” said Ken Duberstein, who worked in the Reagan administration. Up until now, Romney and his team of surrogates have largely pinned electability on Romney’s biography, a successful self-made millionaire who has the business acumen to turn around a stalled U.S. economy. But this strategy has fallen on deaf ears within some of the GOP electorate, who have a seemingly unbalanced hatred towards Obama and his policies.

Romney’s 59-point economic plan, “Believe in America” which was released last year relies on many of the same Republican policies that some on the left and independent voters credit with creating the economic conditions in 2008. Former President George W. Bush’s chief advisor, Karl Rove, warned in a column in the Wall Street Journal, “What worked against an underfunded Mr. Gingrich won’t work against the well-funded Barack Obama.” In particular, Rove advised Romney’s campaign, “He should become bolder in his prescriptions, presenting a confident agenda for economic growth and renewed prosperity through reforms of taxes, regulatory and energy policies.”

The last Republican primary is scheduled in Utah on June 26. It is unlikely that former Sen. Rick Santorum will be able to compete that long even if he should win in Michigan and/or Arizona next Tuesday. Romney has the personal fortune and support of the GOP establishment to remain in the GOP contest over the long run. Mitt Romney’s sole focus on winning enough delegates to secure the nomination has come at a price. His shift to the right and overreliance on negative advertising to crush former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and now Sen. Rick Santorum has amplified his negatives, given ammunition to opposition researchers and has contributed to his unpopularity among independent voters.

Whether he can repair his image come November remains to be seen. What is likely is that Romney will seek to offer a contrast to Obama, choosing to cherry-pick areas like Afghanistan, Iraq and the economy where the president has failed while hoping that social issues remain on the backburner despite their renewed focus for some GOP voters and in several state legislatures. Romney’s “flip-flopping” on abortion, gun control and illegal immigration reinforces the image that Romney is a “severely” inconsistent politician.

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