MITT ROMNEY isn’t openly running for president yet, but he’s clearly focused like a laser on 2012. And seldom has a noncandidate done so well by doing so little. That’s mostly because an astonishing number of his putative 2012 rivals have obliged Romney by systematically stumbling.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s stock sank like a stone after his amateurish, underwhelming response to President Obama’s February address to Congress. Sarah Palin’s decision to resign as governor of Alaska has only exacerbated doubts about her abilities. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign have been badly embarrassed by soap opera affairs, which have made a mockery of their pious public pronouncements.
By contrast, the polished Romney, who is the very picture of a devoted husband, has gotten taller just by keeping his head relatively low. But something equally important seems to be happening inside his camp. According to Sasha Issenberg’s story in the Boston Globe Magazine, Romney’s team has come to think that the former venture capitalist and governor’s best route to the White House will come by stressing economic and fiscal issues and managerial competence rather than by pushing conservative social and cultural hot buttons.
That makes good sense. And yet, close political observers can be forgiven for thinking that this epiphany has come rather late. After all, Romney spent much of the 2008 campaign cycle pandering to the right wing on issues like gay marriage, immigration, and guns, let alone fear of, gulp, Massachusetts. And who can forget his effort to portray himself as the voice of the “Republican wing of the Republican Party’’ - and to cast rival John McCain as outside the conservative mainstream? Meanwhile, it’s hard to recall a sillier speech in the entire last cycle than the one Romney gave to the Conservative Political Action Conference. There, Romney told conservative activists that he was ending his campaign because a protracted primary race might hurt the GOP’s fall prospects and thus make him complicit in “aiding a surrender to terror.’’
Still, if there’s to be yet another new Romney, we hope the 2012 campaign model will be closer to the man we briefly knew as governor than to the candidate who played such an aggressive game of panderama last time out. Which is to say, Romney should adopt the counsel Polonius would undoubtedly have given had he been a political consultant rather than a royal counselor: To thine own strengths be true.