A Cold, Hard, Political Calculation
By Michael MaherApril 23, 2012
With the Republican Party's nomination process all but over, Mitt Romney can now finally focus his energies on the main game — the race against President Barack Obama.
On planet Narcissism, former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a king among kings. How else might one explain his decision to stay in a Republican nomination race which is essentially over, other than his near pathological attraction to the public flame?
Burnt he will be, as the Grand Old Party coalesces around the Mormon venture capitalist Mitt Romney, who is now all but certain to carry the Republicans' banner in this November's presidential election.
For months the party's caravanserai of candidates criss-crossed the nation engaging in ''my conservative credentials are bigger than yours'' posturing and delighting Democratic opponents with a string of testy, intra-party debates. But now that Mr. Romney has finally pushed his way clear of the likes of Messrs Gingrich and Santorum, the real political contest begins. And a very close contest it is set to be.
By selecting Romney, the most liberal of the Republican frontrunners, the GOP has pulled itself back from the Tea Party fringes and placed itself in the political middle ground where most presidential elections are won or lost. When asked recently if the primary battles against his more conservative fellow Republicans had forced Romney to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election, Romney's communications director Eric Fehrnstrom laid bare his candidate's strategy for all to see. "I think you hit a reset button for the [presidential] campaign. Everything changes,'' declared Fehrnstrom. ''It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You kind of shake it up and restart all over again.''
Right now, in the immortal words of Jerry Lee Lewis, there's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on in Romney's campaign to best position their candidate to make Barack Obama a one-term president. After all the rhetorical gun-slinging of the primaries, the Republicans, as they're wont to do, have made a cold, hard, political calculation. ''It's shows that the GOP believes that Romney has the best chance of beating Obama,'' says conservative pundit Paul Kengor. ''The Republican Party is hoping and praying that Romney, of all the candidates in the Republican field, has the best chance of appealing to the broadest base of voters.''
That choice is being vindicated in the latest polls, which show Romney drawing closer to Obama. According to Andrew Kohut, the president of one of the country's leading pollsters, Pew Research, the race ''seems to be closing up. It's going to be a close election. All the earmarks are of an election that's not going to be a blow out.''
The strategy to defeat Obama will revolve almost exclusively around the economy. In a fair world most of the blame for breaking the US economy would lie squarely at the feet of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It was under their presidencies that the financial sector was given free rein to indulge in all manner of questionable practices leading to the collapse of 2008. But as President Obama himself acknowledges he now ''owns the economy'' and his performance over the past three and a half years in trying to fix it will be judged by the American electorate with little reference to the sins of past administrations.
While Obama has managed to oversee a decline in the all important unemployment figure, it still stands at 8.2 per cent — and no incumbent president has ever won a second term with a jobless figure that high.
''I don't have any indication that the electorate is going to be any more patient with Obama than they've been with other candidates who have had bad economies on their watch,'' says Kohut. ''That was certainly the case with the first President Bush in 1992 and certainly the case with Jimmy Carter back in 1980. The issue from the voters' point of view is: 'What did Obama do to deal with the problem?'"
''Not enough'' will be the mantra of Romney's camp. However, that message will be coming from a candidate who the polls say has the lowest favorability rating of any presidential candidate in a long time.
''He has to patch up a lot of wounds that have been inflicted on him by members of his own party in a very tough primary race,'' Andrew Kohut told The Global Mail.
''He's been positioned as elitist and a rich guy who doesn't have a lot of connections to ordinary people. He's got a lot of problems to overcome,'' says Kohut, who adds ''the Republican Party itself has come to be seen as a party that doesn't want to compromise and takes extreme positions so he's got that to deal with as well.'' Kohut points out that, in contrast, Obama's personal popularity ratings have remained relatively high.
Apart from the issue of not being much liked, even within his own party, Romney will have to convince Americans that his time as the head of the private equity firm Bain Capital will help rather than hinder his ability to turn the economy around. Romney touts his time at Bain, where he made the millions helping to fund his campaign, as proof that he's a job creator. Others have argued that rather than creating jobs, Bain Capital was very adept at cutting jobs in the companies it invested in, to bolster the bottom line.
According to the Republican commentator Paul Kengor, the battle lines on this issue are now clearly drawn: ''When Obama and his campaign chief, David Axelrod, send the class-warfare dogs, Romney needs to be able to calmly and intelligently explain why things like venture capital aren't evil and how and why someone with a background in venture capital is actually perfect for the presidency given the status of the economy.''
Kengor believes Romney can win if he can convince the electorate he is the better economic manager. After more than 30 years as one of the country's leading pollsters, Andrew Kohut is steering clear of such predictions. The only prediction he will make about the outcome of the election six months out from polling day is that it will be close.
''Each candidate has some heavy baggage they're carrying, and there are a lot of external things which may play a role in this election that don't have much to do with campaigning and the candidates,'' says Kengor.
''If the economy were to begin to show a little more consistent life that might help President Obama's chances. On the other hand if it continues to limp along or even worsen, that would help Mitt Romney.''
The last US president to serve only one term was George Bush Sr. Basking in his successes in the first Gulf War, he failed to tend to an economy coming out of recession until it was too late. Bill Clinton with his "it's the economy, stupid'' campaign snatched victory from an incumbent who a year before had a 90 per cent approval rating.
No one is stupid enough in 2012 not to know it's all about the economy in this election campaign. Claims of stupidity might well abound, however, as the debate rages over how to fix it.