Luo: “Ever since Mr. Romney began his presidential bid, his campaign has oscillated between two distinct, some would say contradictory, themes—Mr. Romney as a conservative standard-bearer and him as a pragmatic problem-solving businessman”

“GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Mitt Romney was recounting to his audience here a political fable of sorts, about how he had never expected to get into politics after spending his life in business. The moral is one he has been telling again and again in his final sprint before the first votes of the 2008 presidential campaign are cast,” writes the estimable Michael Luo in an NYT release titled As Voting Nears, Romney Shifts Political Narrative

“The skills you have and that you develop in the private sector, whether it be small business or big business, they’re desperately needed in government,” Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor seeking the Republican presidential nomination, told a crowd here Monday.

The theme has essentially become Mr. Romney’s closing argument to voters before the nominating contests, marking a subtle but significant shift from the far more ideological frame that has often been at the forefront of the campaign. The change speaks to the campaign’s broader strategy in its final push to slice away supporters from Mike Huckabee in Iowa and bolster Mr. Romney’s lead in New Hampshire.

Remarks:

(1) Romney has retailed his private sector business experience theme for months. Only it never won him an inch of ground. So he would abandon it only to take it up again later. A few examples from our archives:

(2) What Luo describes as Romney’s “ideological frame” is—or was—Romney’s attempt to outflank his rivals on the right. Again, from our archives:

(3) Here is the problem for Romney. The oft-touted Romney von Schlieffen plan (a lightening strike on 2 fronts to secure the center) consisted in

(a) securing the social conservative, Evangelical base

-and-

(b) developing commanding leads in the early state primaries to create a bandwagoning effect

Only Team Romney never accomplished (a). The social conservative, Evangelical base remains divided and dispersed. The Huckabee surge and Romney’s failed “speech” is evidence of that.

And Team Romney pursued (b) so primitively and naively—activity that reduced to spending enormous sums of money—that it has set up expectations such that even the most positive outcome for Romney in the early state primary contests is prejudiced in advance. Now no one but the political primitives of Team Romney argues that Iowa or New Hampshire will decide the nomination. Instead the speculation rests on either a contested convention, Michigan, or Super-Duper Apocalypse Tuesday.

(4) Every campaign attempts to develop a base, an issues coalition, and then pivot back toward the broad center. This is how you win elections. Romney’s von Schlieffen plan was Romney’s attempt to develop a base.

Because Team Romney failed at every task it set for itself—because it could never develop, consolidate, and mobilize a base of support—because its claims of conservative commitment were consistently greeted with incredulity and disbelief—it could never move toward the center.

So the Romney address to the center—the business experience, business methodology line—never got brought to the center. Oh, the Romneys tried to retail it, however sporadically, however inconsistently, and however much it undermined their larger, more ideological claims. But they would always get distracted or someone would scare them off.

(5) The Romneys tested and abandoned lots of other lines too. Does anyone remember their risibly inconsistent “change” line?

Romney’s inflection point—the strange rhetoric of a troubled campaign

Back to Luo:

“I do believe that by virtue of my work in the private sector and at the Olympics and as a governor that I’m able to tackle the big problems that America faces,” Mr. Romney said in a recent interview. “I think in the final analysis when people go to the voting booths, they’re going to ask themselves, given the scale of challenges we have, ‘Who can solve the problems in America today?’”

The focus on Mr. Romney’s business acumen — he is the founder of Bain Capital, a prominent private equity firm — is in keeping with how almost all the leading Republican candidates have been running to varying degrees on their competence as a way to distinguish themselves from the Bush administration, without distancing themselves from President Bush ideologically.

Nevertheless, Mr. Romney spent much of the spring and summer focusing more on bolstering his credentials as a conservative champion as he fended off vigorous criticism for his more moderate past. Romney advisers believe they have succeeded in establishing his conservative bona fides, even though lingering questions about his authenticity persist, and are able now to move on to focusing on the next layer of voters.

“If you look now and you ask, ‘Is Mitt Romney a conservative?’ People would say, ‘Yes,’” said Russ Schriefer, one of the campaign’s media strategists.

“Now as we get closer to the election,” Mr. Schriefer said, “I think we need to be focusing more on his experience. What is it about Mitt Romney that makes him unique? What is it that makes him uniquely qualified? He has the experience. He has the experience to manage big things. He’s done it before.”

Remarks:

Note Schriefer’s precise language. To the question whether is Romney a conservative, most would answer yes. Well, Romney is now, anyway. (Or, wait—is he a pragmatic business person?) But will Romney be a conservative tomorrow?

All that Schriefer and Romney’s other hirelings have accomplished is a degree of ideological recognition. They failed to develop an issues coalition that could serve as a base. Yet with time having run out—and after months and months of arguing that Romney is the same as the other candidates on ideological grounds with only limited success—Romney’s flaks face the urgent problem of how to differentiate their candidate. (Or so they think.)

Memo to Schriefer: Keep up the good work, dude! 

Back to Luo:

Ever since Mr. Romney began his presidential bid, his campaign has oscillated between two distinct, some would say contradictory, themes: Mr. Romney as a conservative standard-bearer and him as a pragmatic problem-solving businessman.

Precisely.

His campaign advisers argue that the themes are complementary, but Mr. Romney’s critics say that the businessman theme comes much more naturally to him and that he seized on the staunch conservative message only for political purposes.

We concur with the critics.

“These two messages don’t necessarily fit under the same strategic umbrella,” said John Weaver, who ran Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign until the summer. “They’re completely different. I think the governor has struggled to carry those two messages” …

… In Iowa, Mr. Romney’s advisers said it would be difficult for him, at this late stage, to peel off staunch Christian conservatives from Mr. Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, but they said they thought Mr. Romney could win over others who placed more importance on fiscal issues, the economy and immigration. It is one reason Mr. Romney last week unveiled a spiffy new PowerPoint presentation designed more to showcase his corporate competence than to help anyone in the audience follow his points.

Translation: Romney failed—despite tremendous effort—to reach out to Christian conservatives. A few examples: Gov. Huckabee’s breakout rise, “the speech,” and the Value Voters Summmit:

But Mr. Weaver argued that the dual images the Romney campaign had tried to establish were one reason it had struggled to produce a consistent message. In contrast, Mr. McCain’s candidacy immediately evokes the Iraq war and his foreign policy credentials; Rudolph W. Giuliani’s, his handling of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and his theme of staying on offense against Islamic terrorism.

“They’re having a hard time having both feet planted on either side of the seesaw,” Mr. Weaver said of the Romney campaign.

Mr. Romney’s aides conceded they had struggled at times to inculcate their broader message in voters, in part because they were so busy parrying attacks early on from their opponents, including Mr. McCain’s campaign and, later, Senator Sam Brownback’s campaign in Iowa.

“It took us a while to get other things put to bed so we could stick to a theme,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and senior adviser.

To combat attacks from the right, Mr. Romney introduced a message in May centered on what he called the “three legs of the conservative stool” — meant to unite social, fiscal and foreign policy conservatives behind him — and spent much of the summer leading into the Iowa Straw Poll expounding on the idea, bringing up his private sector experience only in passing. He also presented a much harder line on immigration as the issue leapt to the forefront of the Republican race and swooped on the issue of same-sex marriage in August when a judge in Iowa ruled unconstitutional the state’s ban on the practice.

The question at this point is whether Mr. Romney jerked the wheel too hard to the right as he now tries to pick up a broader cross-section of voters. In September, the Romney campaign rolled out a new theme of Mr. Romney as a leader capable of bringing change to Washington. But it is a message that the Romney camp has found difficult to stick to amid the daily fluctuations of the campaign.

“It has been hard to get to the essential, the core,” said Alex Gage, the campaign’s strategy director.

Now Mr. Romney is trying to get down to it before he runs out of time.

The emphases are ours, all ours.

yours &c.
dr. g.d.

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