Today’s Courier Herald Column:
A week ago many Republicans were already envisioning their concession speeches for Mitt Romney. Many were actively ready to point blame lest some should be cast back upon them. It’s all part of the sad dance of the insiders who must preserve their own positions to sit at the right hand of power, even if that seat doesn’t become available until 2016.
The Romney campaign has been quite frustrating to those who would give free advice to them, usually while getting paid for it by someone else. Conventional wisdom dictates how these things are “supposed” to work. Pundits often use data points from past elections to indicate what a candidate “should” be doing.
The reality is that each campaign is unique, as the candidate brings a unique set of strengths to a unique point in time. Judging each campaign against what the last one did, or even a much more nebulous attribution of what a former candidate “should” have done, are good for filling column space or TV air time, but generally offer little practical value for the campaign itself.
Mitt Romney has certainly run his own campaign. He was perhaps overly cautious during the primary, never moving as far to the right as many partisans wanted him to. He chose a relatively safe strategy which amounted to a war of attrition rather than going for early knockouts. His campaign took few risks, instead relying on their overwhelming fundraising advantage and significantly larger organization to eventually wear down other opponents who could not match the resources.
His transition to the general election was also less than conventional. Romney used the Republican Convention to assert his conservative values – but on his terms. The red meat too often used by Republicans to appeal to certain parts of the base was mostly omitted. Illegal immigration and many social issues barely received a mention. Still, there were complaints that Romney didn’t do enough to move to the center.
Staring down last Wednesday’s debate with President Obama, Romney needed a clear and convincing performance to shift opinions about this race. With no convention bounce and the President moving away in most swing state polls, it was beginning to look as if Romney would offer little to excite either his base or convince independent voters he was the right candidate. By Thursday morning, that had changed. Convincingly.
The performances of Romney and President Obama were strikingly different. The reaction from left leaning pundits was all that needed to be observed to determine the winner. MSNBC anchors were apoplectic at the President’s performance. They can honestly still not believe that the President had no responses to Romney’s assertions. Despite the President receiving several minutes more speaking time than Romney, they blame the moderator for not controlling the length of Romney’s responses. They’ve blamed the altitude in Denver. They’ve even blamed the President’s desire to be a unifier.
The reality of the situation is that while Republicans have been questioning Romney’s true conservative credentials and the President has based his entire campaign on painting Romney as a heartless corporate titan with a bloodthirst for unending profits, the reality is Mitt Romney is pretty comfortable being Mitt Romney. And last Wednesday night, he demonstrated that he’s pretty effective at it.
Romney entered the campaign with fellow Republicans charging he was a “flip-flopper”. He did, after all, govern perhaps the most liberal state in the nation as a Republican. His own campaign didn’t help matters any by saying the general election would begin by putting the primary on an etch-o-sketch, essentially shaking away what was needed to be a centrist candidate.
In totality, Romney has been perhaps the most consistent candidate in recent memory, frustrating both those on the left and those on the right. The stage last Wednesday night gave him the opportunity to tie his points together, in his own words, against campaign talking points from the left that do not hold scrutiny when challenged.
The debate did not end the election. Romney still has some ground to cover is he is to close the gaps in most swing state polls, though much ground has been made up. There are still two more debates plus the VP debate. National and World events are also still likely to intervene.
But as of last Wednesday, we now have the real general election campaign underway. And from the Republican side, we have a pragmatic and likable man with legitimate experience in both the private and government sector offering his services in the same way he has consistently done since he began this campaign.
His campaign rarely receives high marks from those who observe and criticize. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that his strategy has actually been somewhat effective. Regardless, it’s hard to argue that Romney is not peaking at exactly the right time.