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A Hard Loss for Romney

By John Ellis

It's one thing to lose as you are. What you lose is an election, but there's always another election and in the case of presidential primary politics, a new electorate that awaits you in the next state. It's another thing to lose as you aren't. Mitt Romney was never the 700 Club right-winger his campaign managers conceived. He was and is a man of business and a very capable one at that.

He's all but doomed now. Senator John McCain will beat him in New Hampshire, probably by a lot, and Romney's media coverage will evaporate and his candidacy will consequently die. On January 9, his managers will walk in and say that the campaign needs $10 million or $15 million to continue and that he, Romney, will have to write the check. Everyone who would contribute has maxed out. Everyone who might won't. Two-time losers don't get new money. It's a basic rule of politics.

Romney will make his last stand in Michigan; that'll be the compromise he and his advisors reach. It's another of his "home" states, by virtue of the fact that his father was governor there 40 years ago. And he'll make the "economy" the issue there, with some immigration red meat thrown in to try to cut McCain. But by then, everyone there will see it for what it is: a construct of consultancy, a case study in desperation. Romney's defeat in Michigan will be definitive. And then it'll be over; back to Belmont with Ann and the kids and plenty of time to think about what went wrong.

Where would you start? A large piece of the Romney campaign's failure was its unwillingness to discuss the major issues facing the country in substantive terms. He never said one interesting thing about how to defeat radical Islam in its war against the United States in particular and the developed world in general. In the midst of the greatest financial meltdown in at least two decades, he didn't offer up even the sketchiest proposal for national or international oversight of the global financial system. In the midst of a genomic revolution in biological science, one that impacts everything from energy to health care to national security, he said nothing at all.

A large part of politics is framing the context in which one's candidacy is understood. Romney was never going to be a base candidate. He's a Mormon and the base is not. Romney was never going to be the "conservative" candidate, he was the former governor of Massachusetts, perhaps the most liberal state in the country, and campaigned there for the US Senate (in 1994) and for governor (in 2002) as a moderate.

Romney's only real choice was to run as a Republican Gary Hart, the candidate of "new ideas" for a party in desperate need of some. That would have at least given him the flexibility to play to his strengths; his intellectual prowess, his business acumen, his demonstrable executive skills and his admirable personal qualities. And it would have enabled him to attract a wide array of advisors and intellectuals to help him think through innovative policy positions on what appear to be intractable issues.

Had Romney campaigned as the GOP Gary Hart, he would have emerged as an agent of change, regardless of caucus and primary outcomes. Long-term, that would have given him leverage within the Republican Party and with voters generally. If you're the "new idea" guy, almost by definition people want to hear what you have to say.

Instead, his handlers framed Romney's candidacy in a fallacy. We were asked to believe that he was something that he was not. Iowa didn't buy it and neither will anyone else. What people are looking for is leadership. What the Romney campaign offered was obeisance.

John Ellis is a contributing columnist to RealClearPolitics. In his day job, he’s a partner at Kerr Creek Partners, a venture capital firm.

(c) 2008 RealClearPolitics

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