Cold, bleak February has turned into a happy time for us. It's given us a short break from the constant barrage of debates, speeches and "crucial" primaries in the Republican presidential nomination contest. February has given us, and the candidates, a bit of time to think. Let's make the most of it.
The nomination is still up for grabs. Mitt Romney has the clearest path to it but Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul are all promising to take it all the way to the convention. To those who natter about how cool a "brokered" convention would be, I say don't wish for something because you might get it. (Among other frightful questions, who can be the brokers? It'll be a food fight that benefits only the media.) The Republican Party is too weak and fractured to come out of such an event united and strong enough to win in November.
So let's assume that Romney is the nominee. The arithmetic is pretty simple. Mitt Romney plus an energized Republican base can beat Obama in November. Romney without an energized base will lose. But the Republican base is conservative, and Romney hasn't closed the deal with conservatives. Can he?
Let's face it: Romney isn't one of us. At CPAC last Friday he said he governed Massachusetts as a "severely conservative" Republican in the tone of voice my late maternal grandmother used to say she was severely constipated. We know his record as state candidate and governor, and national candidate since 2007. We need not rehearse it here. Suffice it to say that it defines him as a transactional conservative. He will apply conservative principles as a business owner might apply production scenarios and estimated profit margins to negotiating a deal. They aren't part of his core, but will be useful tools for him in campaigning and, if he wins, governing.
Romney has run as a technocrat, the kind of expert the Eurozone imposes on desperately failing economies. But technocrats don't win American elections. Skilled, passionate politicians do.
Romney's failure to convince conservatives isn't entirely his fault. There is a mood among conservatives this year created by Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain. We're sick and tired of compromise candidates foisted upon us because they were supposed to be electable. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" turned out to be the oxymoronic "big government conservatism" that paved the way for Obama. McCain was never a conservative, just an arrogant Washington insider. It was only fitting that Dole ended up flakking for Viagra after his campaign. This time, all of the candidates we thought best to take on Obama chose not to run.
The debates haven't helped Romney. He's neither evidenced the kind of passion for conservatism the base has been looking for nor has he explained his economic or foreign policy ideas in terms that were clear or compelling . In his most memorable moments in these debates -- the challenge to Rick Perry for a $10,000 bet, and the rejoinder to Santorum that Obamacare wasn't worth getting angry about -- Romney was aloof in one and dismissive of the passions that animate conservatives in the other.
In his CPAC speech, Romney tried to connect and failed. I did a double take when he said that his test for continuing a government program was whether it was worth borrowing from China to pay for it. Huh? I thought conservatives judged the parts of our oversized government by the terms of the Constitution, especially the Tenth Amendment. If the government shouldn't be in the business of doing something, it should be legislated out of it. Romney doesn't get that.
Conservatives believe that we have too much at stake this year to trust anyone who isn't an ideological conservative. Judging by what's gone on since 2009, a lot of us conclude that if Obama wins a second term, our nation may not survive it.
Rick Santorum had it right in his CPAC speech. Why would independents and Democrats vote for a Republican when his own party isn't enthusiastic about him? Romney's enthusiasm gap is his biggest vulnerability. If he can't energize the Republican base and achieve the level of enthusiasm needed to ensure voter turnout, he can't win in November.
Romney can't close the deal with conservatives. So are we left with Mark Levin's idea that it will be up to us to drag him across the finish line?
If the 2012 race is determined by the relative strengths of the conservative media and the mainstream liberal media, Levin's scenario is possible. Talk radio and publications such as The American Spectator will have a huge impact on voters. And in what is sure to be the most expensive and negative campaign ever, more and more people will be listening to us and reading us because the politically active liberal media has lost a lot of its credibility.
The lack of enthusiasm for Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum is already evidencing itself in the lower primary turnouts since South Carolina. Compared to 2008, turnout was down 58% in Missouri, 26% in Nevada, 23% in Minnesota, 14% in Florida and 6% in Colorado. This was despite constant attention to those races among the conservative talk radio and print media. (When I guest-hosted the Michael Savage show on February 1, the callers wanted to talk about the primary contest to the exclusion of almost everything else.)
For all the enthusiasm we can generate, it probably won't be enough. We can help, but our help won't be decisive. Barack Obama is a skillful campaigner whose principal skill is motivating his supporters. To defeat him, Romney will have to do the same. But Romney -- if he wants to win the nomination and gain momentum to November -- will have to be passionate, credible, and constantly conservative.
There are things such as Obamacare, the loss of personal freedoms, and Obama's tsunami of spending that are worth getting angry about. Romney needs to convince people he shares their anger and will act to remove the reasons for it if he wins the presidency.
Romney has not shown himself to be a man of passion. He will have to change that perception if he is to win the nomination and the election. The time to do that is in the next three weeks before Super Tuesday.
Anger and passion are legitimate emotions. To connect with voters and prove that you share theirs does not require overheated rhetoric or tears. But it does require commitment absent from his CPAC speech. If we don't embrace Romney, he can start gaining ground with conservatives by embracing us and the people we trust.
Presidential candidates always try to have people running on the ticket appear at stump speeches in the general election campaign. Romney needs to start doing that now, not later. Even if the candidates don't want to endorse him yet, why not endorse them in every stop? Romney could do that in the three primary states before Super Tuesday (Arizona, Michigan, and Washington) and the ten which will be held on that day, March 6. By doing that he can embrace real conservatives even if they don't yet embrace him. Conservatism by association isn't really conservatism, but it may be the best Romney can do before the biggest day in the primary season.
That, too, won't be enough to energize conservatives in Romney's favor. But it is a way to begin demonstrating passion for more than his own ambition, and to start uniting the party he hopes to lead out of the Tampa convention.