Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mitt Romney’s Election Strategy: Background, Considerations, Obstacles; and the Mormon Question (Update: Huntsman To Drop Out, Endorse Romney)

It is becoming increasingly likely that Mitt Romney will become the Republican nominee for President, just by looking at the numbers and reading the tea leaves, though it has not been in a precise manner that the Romney campaign had plotted out.  This is not a prediction, just an analysis of current trends, with a caution that one of my key rules for predictive analysis is “Trends continue until they stop.”

There are those pundits who speak of the Romney ‘momentum’, but some of you may recall your high school physics (though some of the younger public school attendees may not have had physics at all) and remember that ‘inertia’ would be a better allusion, as it involves an object in motion staying in motion (or an object at rest staying at rest, in the case of bureaucrats) unless acted upon by an outside force.  Whatever outside forces there have been (Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, Cain, Gingrich again, now Santorum, with Ron Paul biting at his ankles) have only buffeted Romney in his quest, but not deflected him.  Likewise, inertia does not involve acceleration – national polls do not have him breaking out of the 25% voter approval area, at least not yet.

So what exactly is his strategy for moving ahead?  Surely it is more than just to try hard and win because people just naturally like the guy.  He knows better, and being raised in a political family, he should know better than practically anybody.  We should first put to bed his self-portrayal as a political outsider who served a term as Governor of Massachusetts as a one-off that was a departure from his practically exclusive focus as a businessman.  He is anything but.

His father George, besides the inherent politics of being the CEO of American Motors, was a Governor of Michigan, a Secretary of HUD, and a candidate for the Republican nomination for President in 1968.  His mother was a candidate for the US Senate in 1970.  Spending his formative years in a highly focused political atmosphere such as this must have had an enormous influence.  He sought and was granted a very active role in his LDS church structure (after his standard two-year mission expected of the church, to France in his case), moving up through Bishop to President of the Stake in the Belmont, Massachusetts area (any church is a bastion of politics, some more than others).  He was eager to launch a political career in 1994 with an opportunity to take on a giant in that world – Ted Kennedy – after the Kennedy family image had been (further) besmirched by the William Kennedy Smith rape trial.  Gingrich’s retort to Romney in the latest debate, in reply to Romney’s frequent demurral that he hasn’t had a political career, was spot on – he hasn’t had a career in politics, but not from a lack of trying: his was surely the best shot ever taken at the last king of the Kennedy dynasty but Romney lost, despite trying to “run to the left of Ted Kennedy” and spending some $7 million of his own money.

He returned to his home base of Bain Capital but embraced a chance to rescue the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics after the humiliating revelation of the corruption behind trying to woo the International Olympic Committee and the spillover that was threatening to move the Games elsewhere.  The capital of the Mormon empire simply could not afford the damage to its image, so it called upon its Mormon scion from across the continent (ignoring the sensitive yet obvious connection of cronyism that the LDS Church tries to downplay), and Romney was able to save the Games, to his persevering credit.  Despite critics of his grandstanding style, it was an enormous success, and he touts it as perhaps his greatest achievement.

Coming on the heels of his Olympic victory, he tried his hand at politics again by running for Governor of Massachusetts, a post vacated by Jane Swift.   He won by a 50-45 margin in a campaign that introduced new techniques (like micro-targeting groups) and saw again an input of some $6 million of his own money.  He ended his one term in late 2007 on a high note as defined by a Republican in heavily liberal and Democratic Massachusetts, though some critics contend that an election to a second term was in doubt.  But more importantly, he moved in time to run for the Republican nomination for President in 2008, spending some $45 million more of his money on his initially promising campaign, but which involved the clumsy difficulty of trying to switch from being a candidate acceptable to highly liberal Massachusetts to one that could sell himself to a national conservative Republican base.  He initially came in second place (by a disappointing margin) in Iowa behind Mike Huckabee, who ran practically unopposed for the evangelical vote; won New Hampshire as expected, having been a governor of the neighboring state and maintaining one of his homes there (like now); placed fourth in his uncontested South Carolina primary (with resulted in a campaign rebirth of John McCain) in order to focus on Florida, which he won.  But Super Tuesday did him in: though he won several states, John McCain took others along with the giants of California and New York.  Sensing that he would not be able to overtake McCain, he ceded the contest and later endorsed and campaigned for him, though McCain later rubbed salt in the wound by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate.  Romney was nevertheless the Good Soldier, and besides his appearances on behalf of McCain, though meted out to avoid over-exposure in a later run, he formed the Free and Strong America [Super] PAC, gathering funds for the campaigns of McCain and others.  Romney was quite successful at fund-raising, calling his contacts through the LDS and a wealth of contacts developed from the Olympics, and ingratiating himself more fully with the Republican establishment, who hadn’t seen a bona fide moderate Northeasterner since Nelson Rockefeller.  But a significant amount of money was left unspent from the Super PAC, enough to finance a structure that bided its time for Romney’s run now.

Romney’s political history is not confined to a single term as the Governor of Massachusetts.  He is a consummate political professional, with a seasoned and well-honed machine of his own.  He is making steady progress along the track he has taken toward eventual success.  Other than the unknown unknowns that are bound to surface along the way, there are still obstacles around which he has to maneuver, or blow right through.

Despite his clean and wholesome appearance (some would say too good: as if he were a Stepford candidate), he is a scrapper now behind the scenes and his organization, including the PACs that support him, serves him well in that capacity.  Like all candidates, how much he involves himself with the necessary ‘black ops’ that every campaign and politician deals with is unknown and probably unknowable (barring a possible tell-all account from some future disgruntled staffer), but practically every adverse piece of information against an opponent or a maneuvering of the political landscape in his favor (like Florida’s primary date) has Romney’s fingerprints on it.  I have provided discussions of this in this web log, but Fred Thompson provides a brief and readable case toward the end of his article discussing the allegations against Herman Cain.  While he can (and does) claim ‘plausible deniability’ in cases of his PACs going after his opponents (again, as any candidate does), one has to wonder how much of this involves something akin to the lament of Henry II: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”

But what is his strategy that is unfolding?  He has first learned the hard lessons from his experience and is applying them in this Romney 3.0 campaign.  He first ran as a left-leaning Massachusetts moderate in his attempt at the Senate and his term as Governor.  He then tried to re-mold himself as a conservative in the 2008 campaign, but failed amid numerous accusations of being a flip-flopper.  For this campaign, it is vital to avoid the ‘position of convenience’ image by sticking to his guns and explaining away the changes as being refinements of his beliefs.  He has to concede and agrees that he has evolved and changed on the issue of abortion (like Reagan, true), but on the other major issue of Romneycare, and its influence on Obamacare, he has had to draw distinctions – nuanced though they may be – and hope that the voting public buys it.  This has been harder than he expected.

Romney started the campaign with a reliance on what until now has been a dogma of Republican politics for the presidential nomination – you have to wait your turn, but when it is your turn, you are entitled to it.  You have to pay your dues, and a first-time win of the nomination without a previous run or exposure in a national position is rarely successful.  This was how it was for Nixon, and for Reagan, and for George H W Bush, and for Robert Dole.  George W Bush provided the rare exception against John McCain, but McCain (who had paid more dues by then) came roaring back in 2008.  Romney, in bowing out in 2008 for the good of the party, was clearly next in line, and he maintained his organization in place for that purpose.  His critics claim that he was aloof in the early part of the campaign, as he was in 2008 (a “Mittness Protection Program”), which undoubtedly owes to Romney seeing his father’s presidential campaign implode overnight in 1968 after his comment about his earlier support for our efforts in the Viet Nam War being due to his having been “brainwashed” by generals in Saigon.  Mitt has a justifiable fear of uttering some similar gaffe, so is exceptionally careful to parse his words exactly.

He assumed an air of inevitability early on (another annoyance to some potential voters) and relished the fact that his opponents were going after each other while he stood by and watched (and not without some prodding and triangulation on his part, I expect).  But the 25% ceiling set by the conservative anti-Romney quest has been hard to break.  We saw an example of this realization during the September debates when he was assaulted about Romneycare and Obamacare, and he shifted, practically in mid-sentence, from his position up until then of allowing all states to opt out of Obamacare, to a promise to repeal Obamacare.  The inevitability factor suffered still further, with news sources such as Fox News pointing out rather candidly that they had interviewed all the candidates, except Mitt Romney.  He had to start making appearances since the conservative Anyone-But-Romney feeling was in full force and threatening not to budge, and he started out flustered and frustrated at the questioning of Bret Baier when he agreed to his first interview.

For the primaries this time, he focused again heavily on New Hampshire and Florida, where he has maintained strong structures since 2008, with the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary left to a standby, wait-and-see status until the last minute, in order to commit just enough resources to make them count.  With a highly-touted ‘win’ in Iowa this time (by only eight votes, basically a statistical tie, and with practically the same number of votes as in 2008, but a win nonetheless) he has gone on to win New Hampshire last night by a sizeable margin, but further adjustments must be made.  Jon Huntsman did better than expected; Romney would have hoped that if (when) Huntsman drops out, he would be the beneficiary of whatever resources and voters he had (just as the Bachmann support has drifted to other conservatives).  Instead, Huntsman lives to fight on, but it is unlikely that he will survive through South Carolina, Florida, and Super Tuesday.  Paul did somewhat better than expected and remains a thorn in Romney’s side, as well as the side of the rest of the Republicans.  Romney would do well to co-opt the ‘Ronulans’, as Ron Paul has tapped into a solid part of the base of the Republicans, despite his absurd ideas about the military and defense.  Romney can make appeals on topics such as auditing the Fed or even emphasizing his support for the military while seeking to reform its budget process, and he is already not one to spend too much rhetoric on specific threats such as Iran, North Korea, China, the ‘Arab Spring’ turning to Winter, the Islamic Supremacist network such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezb’ullah, Fatah, or al-Qaeda.  He can parse the pending Euro crisis in terms that approximate something that Libertarians want to hear, but without adopting their radical aspects.  This will be a fine line indeed, and I don’t anticipate that he will pay a great deal of attention to them other than to try to accommodate some part of their concerns (that is supposed to be the mission of side-line candidates like Ron Paul, after all) without affecting Romney’s standing with Republicans and disaffected Democrats.

It is certain to me that Romney is assuming a new approach during the nomination process.  It has always been the norm that a candidate must run first of all to attract the base of his party in order to win the nomination, but must then pivot and make a plausible case for the idea that he has actually been a centrist all along, in order to appeal to the electorate at large.  This is a trick, often disingenuous, that is difficult to pull off even in the best of times, and smacks of politics at its cynical worst, not to mention that it exacerbates Romney’s image as someone who will say anything to get elected.  The Democrats are sure to focus heavily on Romney’s image of a flip-flopper, and his campaign is prepared.

Romney is taking a different tack.  He is running instead with an eye primarily to the campaign against the Democrats, doing just enough in the meantime to win the nomination.  He is making his pitch to the centrists of each party and the independents all along, and he is preserving his resources to take on the Obama Democrats in what is expected to be a no-holds-barred assault of negativity.  Preparations from the Left for what will essentially be a culture war are already underway, since Obama has nothing of any substance in the way of accomplishments to run on.  (Even the touted take-down of Usama bin Laden is at best moot, as the idea that Obama made a “gutsy call” in allowing the operators of SEAL Team 6 to take bin Laden out is laughable, as if he really had a choice to pass up the chance to nail him.)  I can see that the Occupy Wall Street movement (hardly spontaneous) is one phase of the preparation, along with almost daily castigation of Fat-Cat Wall Street bankers.  The Democrats have long expected Romney to be the man that they will be up against, and he is the archetype of their ‘enemy’.

The war on culture will also involve faith.  This assault has been going on for some time, basically since the Enlightenment, but its American political component has accelerated of late.  Now we are told that the benighted voters who would oppose the Hope and Change (whatever that means) of the Obama administration are ones who “cling to religion”; health insurance for Christian organizations must include provisions for abortions; Christian adoption agencies must include same-sex couples as clients; courts over-rule legislatures and voters, or discover invisible constitutional provisions or “penumbras” that provide for not just state recognition of civil unions, but religious acceptance of same-sex marriage.  While they argue for toleration of civil unions, they are intolerant in their demands that we embrace a sanctified redefinition of marriage.  Even the devout Tim Tebow comes under assault and ridicule for his beliefs.  And again, Romney is a big target in this regard too.

The topic of Romney’s Mormon faith has been lurking in the background, but let us place our cards clearly on the table.  If you have read to this point, you have seen mention of the Latter-day Saints or Mormons several times.  I have seen not-infrequent comments in the various web logs wherein I participate, and in public conversations whenever the topic of Mormonism comes up, to the effect that the LDS are not actually Christian, or that they exert a power behind the scenes that they have cultivated and grown over the preceding decades since their founding in 1830.  It is not my purpose here to discuss the matter of Mormon theology or its history, intriguing topics though they may be (you may note from my bio that I have a more-than-passing interest in the history of Christianity and its theology), other than to comment on some clarifications of terms used by others.  [Full disclosure: I am not a Mormon.] While some may believe the Latter-day Saints constitute a cult, that is arguable at the least.  A cult will typically be defined as an unorthodox or even bizarre belief system wherein members are held in thrall by a charismatic person or group, and the LDS as a whole do not match that description, at least for the sake of argument between religious beliefs, though some renegade ‘Fundamentalist LDS’ pockets would.  A particular definition that does technically apply from a universal perspective of Christianity, though, would be ‘heresy’, as it is a system which modifies, redacts, or adds to established scripture, which in their case is explained in their eighth Article of Faith: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” [Emphasis mine]  (Mormons use the Authorised King James Version of the Bible, with “explanatory notes and cross references to the standard works” of the LDS Church, including portions of a Joseph Smith Translation (JST).  There are other writings that they add to their accepted scripture.)  Some denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church, as well as Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, officially hold to the heresy designation.  Other aspects of the LDS belief system differ from standard Christian doctrine, but that is again beyond the purpose of this article.

Romney recognized early on that he would have to address the question of his faith and its impact on his life and potential as the president, and he did so, and admirably I believe, on 6 December 2007 in an address titled “Faith in America”, delivered at the George H W Bush Library at Texas A&M University.  Romney compared himself to John F Kennedy and his overcoming the hurdle of being the first Roman Catholic president, then declared “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.  Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. . . . I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as president.  I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”  Further: “If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest.  A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.  There are some for whom these commitments are not enough.  They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion. . . .  That I will not do. . . .  Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy.  If they are right, so be it.  But I think they underestimate the American people.  Americans do not respect believers of convenience.  Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.”

Romney himself can tackle the weighty subject of the impact of a Mormon president, just as John F Kennedy did with his Catholicism, and it is only Romney who can do this.  He has already said that he has put this to bed, as it were, with his Faith speech, and he has no intention of re-addressing the issue.  Yet a separate but similar and connected idea is how the electorate will view the LDS through the prism of a front-running Mormon candidate and possible president.  The LDS Church has made a steady effort since the early 1990s to make itself more acceptable to the American public at large, emphasizing its patriotism, hard-work ethic, and sense of morality, as well as publically de-emphasizing its Prophet Joseph Smith in favor of a more open emphasis on Jesus Christ, as in their logo.  A candidate like Romney (or even Huntsman, also a Mormon), if he can make good his solid chance to accede to the presidency, would be the greatest boon to their legitimacy in their history, and it is no wonder that he has so much support from his church, but it is up to the church to follow through with this opportunity.  How that will happen, with its insular history, reluctant to open up to the community at large, will be up to the church hierarchy.  But if nothing else, this campaign brings with it the added attention of a public that is still wary of the power, parochialism, history, secrecy, and theology of the LDS, and Romney will have to rely on his church to take on the challenge, because it remains, for whatever reason, an important question in the minds of many Americans.

The major test is coming up in heavily evangelical South Carolina, with its primary on 21 January.  This is the marker to see if the religion question finally can be put to bed.  The Romney campaign is already pushing the message of Romney’s adherence to his faith, without mentioning his allegiance.  It seems to be working so far according to the polls, and Romney still maintains a double-digit lead over his contenders.  From there, the next wicket is to win in Florida at the end of the month, for which he has been planning for years, and the polls there likewise have him in a commanding lead.  The momentum should carry him into Super Tuesday, after which, for all practical purposes, he would be practically unbeatable for the nomination.  I cannot see how any other truly Republican candidate (that would exclude Ron Paul in my mind) can make it past Florida, much less Super Tuesday.  The Perry campaign, despite its resources and staff, is fading fast; Gingrich is making a last stand in South Carolina; Huntsman has peaked in New Hampshire; Santorum cannot keep up the pace to overcome Romney.  Romney needs to find some way to accommodate the Libertarians, but it is not vital to his success, though it would be remiss for the party to not try.

In the end, Romney has the nomination sown up, as of now (with the exception of my initial caveat of my introduction above – trends can change suddenly and dramatically).  We are already seeing the opening salvos of the battle against Obama, fought out on the smaller stage of South Carolina after Romney’s gaffe about “I like being able to fire people . . .”  Some of his opponents are trying to take advantage of the line, though it is taken out of context.  Yes, the larger statement explains a key tenet of the free enterprise system, but surely Romney could have made a better choice of wording.  You just know that we will be hearing that line repeated ad nauseum in Democrat ads, but for the time being this provides a serendipitous chance to pound out the economic message that the voting public has said that it wants to hear.  It can’t get any more fundamental than that.  This economic battle will be fought for the next ten months with the cultural one reaching new heights. 

In that regard, Romney is the man to do it.

Update:  News reports (this one, for example) state that Jon Huntsman is dropping out, maybe as early as tomorrow (Monday, 16 January), and will endorse Mitt Romney.  (see above)

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