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Mitt Romney Was Not an Awful Candidate

By Taylor Marvin

With the election over, it’s time for the post-mortem. How did Republicans fail to unseat an incumbent hampered by a nearly 8 percent unemployment rate? You can get lost in explanations for the Republican’s defeat for days: blatant voter suppression encouraged turnout from the very groups it was designed to suppress, demographic changes make the Republican Party’s near-total focus on a white, elderly core increasingly untenable, conservative media’s taken the Republican Party hostage, a hawkish foreign policy alienated war-weary voters, or a zealots focus on denying basic human rights just doesn’t win votes anymore. These are all good arguments, and worth serious consideration by conservatives.

One argument that I’ve seen on both sides is more topical: that Mitt Romney was a singularly bad candidate who lost an otherwise winnable election. I don’t buy it. Mitt Romney wasn’t a great candidate, and was certainly hurt by what appears to have been a horribly mismanaged and overconfident campaign, but he wasn’t an awful one. As a reasonably successful single-term governor with private sector managerial experience Romney brought a solid resume to his campaign; certainly a stronger one than his primary competitors, or for that matter the competitors in the 2008 Democratic primary. His personal carisma and public demeanor were lacking, but that particular deficiency hasn’t doomed other campaigns.

Given the changing American electorate, it’s hard to see who could have done a better job than Mitt Romney. More successful and charismatic conservative politicians would have likely had an even greater problem attracting independent voters. An attempt to attract non-white voters by nominating a person of color would have been hugely patronizing, even if the the GOP had a suitably experienced non-white politician to run. Bobby Jindal would have been problematic for his deep South governorship, and Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley too inexperienced for a 2012 run. Romney’s history at Bain Capital opened him up to (justifiable) attacks, but it was a weakness a more competent campaign should have overcome.

The problem with the Romney campaign wasn’t Romney himself, but the party he represented. Romney constantly lied and changed his positions not because he’s pathological, but because it was required — there’s simply no way the policy positions required to clear the Republican primary are at all palatable to the general electorate. Sure, Democratic politicians move to the center after their primaries — no one believed Obama would actually renegotiate NAFTA — but the distance between Republican primary voters and the median is much greater than on the left. There was simply no way for Romney to pander to both the Republican base and the moderates he needed to capture to win in swing states.

In another world Romney could have won. In the absence of Tea Party rejectionism Romneycare would have been seen an admirable success, achieving universal healthcare along conservative, free market principles. Instead, Romney was forced to disown his only real legislative achievement, and main claim to bipartisanship. Romney’s governorship of a liberal state, untempered by his “severe conservatism” would have stood a chance at appealing to independents. In a less fundamentalist GOP Mitt Romney would not have made the hugely regrettable decision to oppose the Obama administration’s rescue of the auto industry, and his belligerence towards Iran would not have alienated voters.

Romney was no reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, but he shouldn’t have had to have been. Parties always hope for miraculous wonder candidates who dazzle the nation with their carisma, but Reagans, Clintons, and 2008 Obamas are rare, and parties shouldn’t rely on them being available each election cycle. The personal qualities of individual candidates are important, but pale compared to the party’s fundamentals. If the GOP can’t alter these, even wonder candidates won’t help them.

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