The Politico article Nancy links below actually points to an extended Boston Globe piece that looks back to the 2008 race and ahead to ’012. It’s a fascinating article and a good read, but there’s one quote in there from a Romney adviser that bugs me just a bit:
As Romney advisers mined their 2008 experience for potential 2012 lessons, several rued the fact that he had been introduced nationally as an ideological purist and not as a businesslike pragmatist. Instead, his campaign focused too intently on winning over Iowa’s evangelical voters, for whom Romney’s Mormonism had likely been an insurmountable hurdle, aides concluded after the election. “If you’re looking for a mistake we made, we should have made [the campaign] more about competence,” says Ron Kaufman, a lobbyist and former White House official who advises Romney. “If a Republican can win in 2012, it will be because competence matters.”
I just flat-out do not believe that a 2008 run focused on competence would have succeeded. People forget how much the Governor made the competence point (just as they forget how much he trumpeted his health care reforms). His introductory videos, his stories, and his speeches included massive references to saving the Olympics, rescuing Massachusetts from fiscal collapse, and his business success. Yes, he emphasized the “three legs of the Republican stool” and his ideological conservatism, but his biography was a big part of his campaign as well, and it just didn’t get decisive traction.
Here’s the thing: The “competence” argument was not going to resonate with Republican voters in ’08. Republican primary voters were tired of hearing President Bush described as incompetent, so a candidate who put “competence” as the absolute centerpiece of his campaign could have been seen as running against the Republican incumbent, and that wouldn’t fly.
Moreover, the Republican primary was dominated at the chattering class and grass-roots activist level by the “who is the true conservative” argument, which caused every single candidate to emphasize their conservative bona fides. Lest we make too much fun of the Dems who swooned over “The One,” there seemed to be this strange aching on behalf of many conservatives for a candidate who would make them swoon. A pragmatism-based campaign in the midst of such environment would have been seen as a rebuke of the conservative base and gone nowhere — especially when there was already a candidate (John McCain) who had the market essentially cornered on the “moderate” and “independent” primary vote.
The more I think about ’08, the more I think Mitt did just about as well as he could. He wasn’t responsible for the “true conservative” fever that gripped much of the Republican primary electorate, and so he had to respond as best he could. Let’s not forget that even with the rise of Huck and the loss of Iowa and New Hampshire, he came darn close to capturing the nomination. A few points in Florida, and the momentum would have decisively shifted before Super Tuesday — and Super Tuesday itself was very, very close, with only the quirks of the Republican delegate math leaving Mitt with the few options that he had at that point.
It’s human nature to look at a race that close and think “if only” . . . “If only we did this differently and that differently, then we would have broken through.” Yet such an analysis overlooks the “if only” factors that did break your way — and might not have if you changed approach.
If present trends continue, then the 2012 season looks to be quite different. A “competence” and “economic expertise” conservative will be able to run directly against a domineering, excessively liberal White House whose policies are retarding economic growth. The “true conservatism” battles of 2008 will have already established his bona fides and allow him to take a weary “been there, done that” approach to the argument. And the religion issue will have been talked to death. 2012 can be a race about Mitt the leader, not Mitt the Mormon, and that’s exactly the kind of race he can win.