For one primary reason, Mitt Romney was, in the 2012 presidential election, the worst possible choice out of the several most credible Republican hopefuls to challenge President Barack Obama’s re-election: Obamacare should have been the defining issue of that campaign but Romney was singularly unable to prosecute the case against a government takeover of the health insurance system because he, thanks to the creation of “Romneycare” in Massachusetts when he was the Bay State’s governor, was perceived as the “grandfather of Obamacare.”
A similar problem may play out for Republicans in 2016.
The defining issue in this election season should be Hillary Clinton’s dishonesty and corruption, known to every sentient American beyond bar mitzvah age (even The Atlantic has noticed!) and cemented this week by a devastating report by the State Department Inspector General which concluded that Clinton never requested, and would never have received, approval to use her private e-mail server. For good measure, we also learned that Clinton and her top aides refused to be interviewed by the IG — of the department she used to head — for purposes of the investigation.
It will surprise nobody that in the most recent CBS/NY Times poll of voters’ opinions of the candidates, when asked whether Mrs. Clinton is honest and trustworthy, 64 percent of registered voters answered “no.”
To attack this glaring weakness in Mrs. Clinton, the GOP would of course select a person of sterling (or at least acceptable) character and reputation to challenge her. After all, any Republican who could earn his party’s nomination must have a better reputation for honesty than a woman known for a lifetime of cronyism, corruption, lies and incompetence, right?
When asked the same question about Donald Trump, the answer was identical: 64 percent of registered voters do not find him honest and trustworthy.
Being tied with Hillary on the question of honesty is, astonishingly, better than the result in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll in which a slight plurality of American adults found Hillary more honest and trustworthy than Donald.
When one liar calls another liar a liar, or “crooked,” it might get cheers (or jeers) from his fans but how much will it stick? The likely answer: not much.
Another lesson of the failed Romney campaign is the overly discussed but nevertheless true point which the Boston Globe, in an election post-mortem, put this way:
Exit polls told a stunning story. The majority of voters preferred Romney’s visions, values, and leadership. But he had clearly failed to address the problem that Romney’s own family worried about from the start. Obama beat Romney by an astonishing 81 to 18 percent margin on the question of which candidate “cares about people like me.”
So does it really matter that, for example, a recent Bloomberg poll of middle-income Rust Belt voters finds Trump more likely than Hillary to “rein in the power of Wall Street” and “change the way Washington does business”? Does it even matter if they think he is stronger on both the economy and terrorism, as the same poll shows?
If Hillary is perceived as more in touch with voters’ broader and emotionally deeper needs and concerns than Trump is, all bets are off.
The above-mentioned NY Times poll asked about each candidate, “Do you think (he or she) shares your values?” On this fundamental question, and even with her decades-heavy baggage of being the ultimate insider, out of touch with ordinary Americans, deceitful, and just downright annoying, Hillary Clinton beats Donald Trump, with a depressing 37 percent to 31 percent, respectively, of voters answering “yes.”
If that’s not bad enough, the Bloomberg poll — note that this is a survey of the precise voters among whom Trump needs and expects to outperform in order to win in November — shows Clinton trouncing Trump, 39 percent to 26 percent, on the precise issue that sank Romney: which candidate most “cares about people like me.”
One might suggest that these poll numbers can change, and indeed they can. Trump theoretically has a better chance of improving his numbers than Hillary does because, at least as a politician, Americans’ views of Mrs. Clinton have a long history whereas Trump’s public perception may still be at least slightly fluid; they know him as a celebrity much better than they know him as a candidate.
But, particularly following his mind-numbingly ill-conceived and nearly fact-free performance in New Mexico in which he attacked New Mexico’s female Hispanic governor who is also chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association, there is nothing in Trump’s behavior which suggests that he will change his approach to the campaign. His over-the-top bombast and self-centeredness is not shtick; it’s who he really is. (What general election candidate spends part of every speech talking about who did and didn’t endorse him in South Carolina three months earlier?)
Donald Trump, having knocked many good candidates out of the Republican race during a year of anti-establishment fury, believes that what he has done to win the nomination will also win the general election. He doesn’t seem to grasp that those contests have two very different electorates and that what worked in the first might not only be less successful with many general election voters; it could — and likely will — push them into the arms of a deeply unpopular and otherwise beatable alternative.
The lessons of Romney’s rejection are clear: As long as Donald Trump cannot successfully prosecute what should be the defining case of this election, that Hillary Clinton is too dishonest to be president — because he is perceived as at least equally dishonest — and as long as he remains behind her on the question of “caring about people like me,” little else in the raucous 2016 political contest matters.