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Weak incumbent, weak challenger

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Michael Gerson
April 3, 2012
— Recent endorsements by Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan have solidified Mitt Romney’s status as the presumptive Republican nominee. They have also systemically highlighted Romney’s limits as a candidate.

Bush is the conservative policy innovator. Rubio is a symbol of youth and outreach. Ryan is the budgetary idea leader. Romney does not benefit from comparison in any of these categories.


In a campaign of wild mood swings, sudden polling gyrations and embarrassing infatuations, Romney has been steady, organized, dogged and successful. He has all but secured the nomination of a party more conservative than his record and angrier than his style—a considerable political achievement.


But by now it is clear that Romney is not a political natural—as Barack Obama was and Rubio may be. Politics are Romney’s second language, and he often speaks it haltingly, in an awkward accent. His ploys are too obvious, his humor forced, his instincts unreliable.


This matters because Romney is engaged in an uphill communications battle—a series of challenges that require effective language and strategy.


First, he needs to express sympathy for the concerns of regular people, without actually being a regular person. Romney’s deficiencies in this area have been evident for months, but his stumbles continue. He jokes about job layoffs by his father. He moves forward with the renovation of his California dream home.


But the problem is revealed, not just in the stumbles, but in the strategy. In Wisconsin, Romney attacked Rick Santorum as a friend of “big labor.” This is an easy applause line in a Republican primary. But it is also the argument of upper management, just as Romney needs to begin appealing to the shop floor. Romney would help his cause by giving evidence of a political master plan beyond easy applause lines.


Romney’s second challenge is a persuasive defense of entitlement reform. A candidate not known for boldness has embraced Ryan’s bold approach to reforming Medicare and Medicaid. Now comes the assault. It is a perilous moment for the candidate and the Republican Party. If Romney is incapable of making the case on entitlements—or loses his nerve and tries to change the subject—it would be a devastating political setback. It would also, incidentally, be a devastating setback for the country, which is being hastened toward crisis by entitlement demagogues.


The very worst option for a Republican is the half-embrace of entitlement reform. A full, effective embrace by Romney would also provide a needed display of principle and passion. “You have to be a happy warrior,” says Ryan, “not ducking or fearing the fight.” Which may be the best argument for Ryan as Romney’s vice presidential pick.


Third, Romney needs to address his serious problem among Latino voters. It may not be possible, at this point, to do more than contain the damage. During two presidential election cycles, Romney has methodically employed the immigration wedge against Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. Romney’s pledge to veto the DREAM Act—legislation supported by nine out of 10 Hispanic voters—was a major error. It makes little political or moral sense to punish children for the offenses of their parents, particularly when they seek higher education or to join the military.


Republican outreach to Hispanics is far from hopeless. Obama refused to press for comprehensive immigration reform when he had the votes, and Latino voters know it. They oppose the administration’s policy of quickened deportations by a margin of 2-to-1. They share the same concerns on unemployment, deficits and government spending as other voters.


The contest for Latino support reveals the broader dynamic of the election. The incumbent is weak. But so, on key issues, is the challenger. Instead of a clash of titans, it is a contest of the wounded.


Commentators tend to exaggerate current trends, so Obama is now generally viewed as invincible. But his Gallup approval remains south of 50 percent—a traditional indicator of vulnerability. Majorities disapprove of Obama’s job performance on the economy, on the federal debt, on job creation and on health care. When is the last time a Democrat was so feeble on the health issue? Americans overwhelmingly believe the country is on the wrong track. Obama is essentially tied with a generic Republican opponent.


But Romney, who speaks politics awkwardly, now faces his largest political task: He must be something more than a generic Republican.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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