The National Journal’s “Hotline” periodically ranks the ’08 contenders, and this month’s edition (as did last month’s) puts Governor Romney in second place, behind John McCain. I love what the editors say about the Governor:
How did a Massachusetts governor who is a Mormon, passed universal health care and used to be a social libertarian become the darling of elite conservatives who can’t stomach McCain? The transformation is remarkable–and we bet it will become a hurdle. News last week that Romney’s chief of staff Beth Myers is joining the PAC suggests Romney wants the mechanics of his pre-presidential bid to run smoothly. But isn’t there a vacuum in the GOP field if, a year from now, the final two are still McCain and Romney?
How did this happen? Let me provide the short answer. Governor Romney shares President Bush’s relevant strengths at the same time that he offers an unmistakably fresh approach. The essential conservative view of the Bush presidency is that he faced the one, big challenge of his presidency in the right way: by taking the military offensive against Islamic fascism. He has also been strong on judges and taxes, but in other areas the view is more mixed. Conservatives have problems with his approach to health care, his response to Katrina, his approach to immigration, and the way he has fought the Iraq war. Above it all hovers a seeming inability to offer a sustained and convincing public case for his values and methods.
Now think for a moment about the contrasts Governor Romney offers. He was talking sense on immigration before the issue burst on the national scene (posing in speech after a speech a very common sense question (I’m paraphrasing): Why do we make it tough for highly skilled immigrants to stay in this country but easy for those with few or no skills to cross the border and stay indefinitely?). He has a demonstrated, hands-on and problem-solving approach to crisis (i.e. the ’02 Olympics and the Big Dig), and his approach to health care involves a much greater degree of individual accountability and fiscal responsibility. And hovering over it all (and this should not be underestimated) is the ability to consistently and persuasively articulate and advance the values and ideas that drive his policies.
One could even argue that the “two M’s” (Massachusetts and Mormonism) can become an asset to his campaign. By governing effectively in America’s bluest state, the Governor has proven that a conservative can lead even in the face of cultural and political differences. And his faith provides a foundation for his social beliefs–a foundation that provides assurance that his social conservatism is not the product of opportunism but of sincere moral conviction.
Given Governor Romney’s formidable present reality, I think Hotline is exactly right: His opponents will increasingly focus on the past. The more social libertarian approach of his ’94 campaign against Ted Kennedy will be used to accuse him of “flip-flopping” on critical social issues. Fortunately, the Governor’s record in the statehouse will speak loudly and clearly. Every time a critic brings up some of the things the Governor said in ’94, we wil remind them of the things that Governor has done in office. That’s an argument we will win.