I dare say that no one knows more about presidential politics than Michael Barone, and yesterday he wrote a characteristically insightful piece that looks back at 2008 to highlight the GOP’s challenges in 2012.
He’s one of the few commentators who accurately notes how close the Governor came to capturing the Republican nomination (just a 3% shift in some key states, and it’s a whole different ballgame), but I think he’s wrong about on thing. He writes:
Imagine for a minute another possible Romney 2008 strategy: run primarily as a fiscal conservative, skip Iowa and concentrate on New Hampshire, get that extra 3 percent between January 19 and Super Tuesday February 5, and then enter the next run of primaries—Maryland and Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana—running even with McCain in delegates and far ahead of him in money. In those circumstances it is conceivable Romney might have won the nomination and have been in a position to cast himself as an expert on economics and finance—more expert certainly than Barack Obama—after the failure of Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis in mid-September.
But could Romney have won running primarily as a fiscal conservative that early in the process? Obviously, that’s the Governor’s unquestioned strength, but I think Michael is misreading the time. In the early primary season Republicans were focused on finding the “true conservative” and on the Iraq war. The narrative on the economy was the consistent refrain that the media wasn’t giving the Bush administration enough credit for the (then) robust growth. Running as “the economy guy” would have catapulted him to the nomination if the market had crashed a few months earlier, but as of January/February 2008, few people knew (and the public had definitely not perceived) that the housing market Titanic had already hit the iceberg.
Also, from the beginning the Governor ran as what we called the “full spectrum conservative” (he always referred to three legs of the Republican stool: national security, fiscal responsibility, and family values). His opponents highlighted the social conservative aspect of his message because that presented the easiest target.
Obviously the Governor’s strategy wasn’t flawless, but it was better than he gets credit for. A previously unknown (Mormon) Massachusetts governor who is a recent pro-life convert comes within 3% of winning the Republican nomination? That’s not bad on its own terms, and it looks even better when one realizes that Republican primary voters are not known for embracing candidates their first time through. (Just ask Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain). Heck, just ask any Republican in the modern primary era not named “George Bush.”