The two big announcements out of Team Romney today that together–as I’m certain was the intention–neatly form a question/answer set for Republican primary voters on whether to support him over Newt Gingrich. Today’s early-morning oppo-drop on Newt was meant to call into question Gingrich’s conservative bona fides and highlight his sketchy personal life. This was expected and leaked long in advance. The more stunning (and unleaked) news is that Romney has now endorsed Paul Ryan’s extreme, heavily unpopular, and possibly politically suicidal budget plan. This wasn’t leaked at all, and together the two actions present a fairly powerful message to conservative activists. Newt famously panned the Ryan Plan at its outset, of course, before artlessly flipping on the subject. Romney is trying to retake control of the contest, and he’s keeping it simple. You want someone with a squeaky-clean home life? Vote Mitt. You want someone who gets it right on entitlements? Vote Mitt. If neither matters to you, vote Newt. Simple.

This is Romney finally reacting to seeing his frontrunner status erode, and trying to take on the seemingly soft target that is Newt Gingrich. I will admit that there’s some compelling logic to these moves, and I was surprised that Romney has gone there. For one thing, his timing is just not good. To endorse the Ryan Plan months after it has ceased to be any part of the conversation might highlight one of Newt’s biggest campaign missteps, but it also reintroduces a subject that caused Republicans no end of political headaches during the summer, including being arguably responsible for a special election defeat in a safe GOP seat. Reorienting the discussion away from jobs and the economy and toward entitlement reform strikes me as a poor choice for Republicans–it ignores their strongest issues in the general election for one that’s divisive even in their own camp. And as Gingrich draws beaucoup support from seniors, one wonders if this is the strongest angle Romney’s team could come up with to splinter the pro-Newt folks. I suppose it’s better than ignoring the guy, and hoping he’ll fall apart quick enough to matter.

Additionally, I’m just not quite sure that Mitt’s got the right assumptions in mind here. Mitt Romney–characteristically–has taken a substantive stand here to appeal to conservatives. This is how Romney operates–he identifies an objective, figures out how to get it, and takes whatever public stances are necessary to achieve it. But while Romney might be conservative in terms of his current issue profile, he doesn’t think like a conservative and doesn’t understand how their minds work. After all, if right-wingers made decisions solely off of tangible things like issue statements and past records, Mitt would have been disqualified right off the bat for having started the program that inspired the dread Obamacare. Nate Silver, however, has a great opinion piece that explains Gingrich’s trump card:

I have seen a lot of other commentators bring up versions of this point, but there is a reason why Republicans, especially conservative Republicans, see Newt Gingrich as by far their most qualified nominee and why they have been willing so far to excuse his periodic lapses from conservative orthodoxy.

The reason is simply that under Mr. Gingrich’s Congressional leadership, the Republican Party finally broke the New Deal coalition that had dominated American politics for more than a half-century, moving policy substantially to the right. That is a pretty impressive credential. [...]

Mr. Gingrich resigned under the cloud of an ethics scandal in 1999. But there was no backlash to speak of; instead, the Republicans’ score card since then has looked pretty good. [...] It is hard to say how much of this shift is because of Mr. Gingrich. Like the quarterback for a winning football team, he is probably given somewhat more responsibility for his party’s wins and losses than he truly deserves. Nevertheless, no other Republican candidate can come close to matching his record. It is also one that older voters in particular — with whom Mr. Gingrich performs extremely well — may be inclined to appreciate. Those older voters may have a keener sense of history and would have remembered that the House of Representatives had been dominated by Democrats for their entire adult lifetimes until Mr. Gingrich came into power.

This matters. Romney is a hostage of his corporate mindset–the customer is always right, and you say or do anything to make them happy. Gingrich is an experienced activist who understands that an appealing narrative, rousing rhetoric and picking the right targets matters a lot more than picking this or that policy. And, increasingly, I’m beginning to think that this mismatch accounts for most of Romney’s shortcomings in 2008 and this year. As Romney’s electability argument becomes less credible (at least according to the polls), all he has left to fight back with is attack fodder to bring Newt’s numbers down, a strategy which has never had the 100% effectiveness that many people believe–just revisit Clinton vs. Obama in 2008 if you doubt it. Oh, and a theory of politics that doesn’t match the environment he’s in. Romney may well win–there are dozens of reasons why it should happen–but it won’t be because of anything he did today.

{ 1 comment }
  1. Metavirus says:

    i’ve said it a million times before: if democrats can’t dramatically and significantly capitalize on the Ryan/Romney plan to destroy medicare, then they should all be convicted of political malpractice in the first degree.

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