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Jon Chait is killing it on the Romney front today. First, he tackles the not-all-that-mysterious question of why Americans really hate Mitt Romney, and comes up with a pretty convincing explanation:

The main reason, I suspect, is that the Republican Party is extremely unpopular. The Bush years deeply discredited the GOP, and while Republicans were able to make gains in 2010 by default, as the out party during an economic crisis, they did nothing to rehabilitate their image. Indeed, they have embraced even more unpopular positions than the ones that George W. Bush advocated. Romney has taken up the banner of cutting Medicare in order to make room for lower taxes for the rich, and that’s an incredibly unpopular trade-off.

What else? Romney has come to be defined by his wealth to some degree. This is not a problem if you’re able to pass yourself off as a rich guy looking out for the little guy, and Romney has tried to pass himself off this way. But it’s very hard to pull off given his actual policies. Romney has made his shorthand identification “I’m a conservative businessman.” That’s not a great sell for a Republican, except among hard-core Republicans (and, really, affluent Republicans, which is Romney’s base.)

George W. Bush presented himself as a compassionate conservative. Bill Clinton was a New (i.e., tough on crime and welfare) Democrat. Their personas were inherently crafted, at the most basic level, to disarm voters’ gut-level suspicion of their party. Romney has not done this at all.

Indeed he hasn’t. Yet. As his closest advisor told us today, he’s going to reset himself for the general election, about which Chait has this to say:

There are two problems here. First, he’s giving the game away way too early. Of course Romney is going to try to reposition himself toward the center. But he’s in the process of convincing conservatives he’s really with them. Fred Barnes, in a column praising Romney, writes today, “His plan was to run as a moderate but govern (I think) as a conservative. He’s abandoned the moderate mask and positioned himself firmly in the conservative camp.” That was the plan – persuade conservatives that they’re in on the con. Now Romney will give them grounds to wonder if they’re the suckers. It’s okay to do that after you’ve sewn up the nomination, but not while conservatives can still make your life difficult.

Second, Romney’s campaign suffers from a general problem of failing to hide its cynicism. The campaign’s grasp of the underlying dynamics is totally sound. It sees President Obama’s political vulnerability as stemming entirely from the 2007-2008 economic disaster, and it views conservative ideology as ballast upon Romney. If Romney can avoid positioning himself too far from the center, and the economy fails to recover swiftly enough, he should win. Presto!

The problem here is that, for the process to play itself out the way political scientists would forecast, you need to conceal the calculations a bit. For instance, you obviously can believe that your need to win elected office would make you more reluctant to hire illegal aliens, but you shouldn’t just say that. And obviously you’re going to reposition yourself for a different audience, but that works a lot better if you pretend you’re advancing actual core beliefs.

It’s actually pretty shocking that they’d be so direct about this, to the point of blurting it out this way. It’s very reminiscent of Bob Dole, actually. But ultimately let’s remember that Mitt Romney isn’t all that good of a politician. He does what he thinks he needs to do to win elections, but as we’ve heard a million times, he’s a datahead who is more turned on by the challenges of data analysis and public policy than delivering red meat or making penetrating critiques. He’s a poor speaker who comes off as stiff in public. And he’s more than willing to sell out his base if it helps him politically. Wait, something just occurred to me: are we sure he’s not actually a moderate Democrat who is just confused about which party he belongs to?

  1. [...] Yippee: Romney has taken up the banner of cutting Medicare in order to make room for lower taxes for the rich, and that’s an incredibly unpopular trade-off. [...]

  2. And he is currently polled lower than Bush in the polls.

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