Jacob Heilbrunn

Don't 'Misunderestimate' Romney

After his passable but lackluster performance on not-so-super Tuesday, Mitt Romney is being written off by both Republicans and Democrats. George F. Will has already announced that the GOP should fold up its presidential tent and focus on winning Congress (ignoring the fact that without a viable presidential candidate, it will be harder to win those seats as well). The base, so the argument goes, hates Romney. He's a lousy public speaker. His campaign is unfocused. He's stiff, prone to gaffes, a modern-day incarnation of Gerald Ford. He missed his Sister Souljah moment when he failed to denounce Rush Limbaugh last week. Come November, Barack Obama will eat his lunch. And so on.

Not so fast. Romney remains the most dangerous and credible foe that the GOP can nominate in 2012. For one thing, Romney has shown that he has the necessary fire in the belly. He wants revenge—revenge for the humiliations that his father George suffered in 1968, when he failed to secure the GOP nomination and was widely ridiculed for saying that he had been brainwashed by American generals during a trip to South Vietnam. It's also the case that he's willing to do and say anything to secure the nomination. He was for abortion before he was against it. Ditto for health care—a new find is the 2009 USA Today op-ed in which he trumpeted his support for an individual-insurance mandate. Now he's making noises about raising taxes on what is known as "carried interest," which would constitute something of a flip-flop on taxes.

On foreign policy, he has also been truculent and evasive. In a Washington Post op-ed, he accused Obama of being feckless on Iran, while nowhere stating that he would actually do anything differently from Obama. Like Obama, he brandished the threat of military action but didn't actually say he would use it. It's Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman who are calling for bombing Syria and creating so-called "safe havens." In office, Romney might well follow neocon policies rhetorically, but would he actually implement them? Or would the old Massachusetts moderate resurface?

No, the base doesn't like Romney. He's going to lose further primaries to the tandem of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. They seem to be in their own race—to see who can be the looniest candidate to the Right of Romney. The best thing Romney can do is detach himself from them. The crazier they are, the more reasonable he appears. The truth is that Romney will never appeal to the conservative base, which abhors him.  If Romney is clever, he won't wait until June to begin detaching himself from the radical Right but begin now. E.J. Dionne has it right in the Washington Post today when he observes that Romney is the new Nixon. Nixon stated about the Right, "They don't like me, but they tolerate me."

But Romney is free of the demons that plagued Nixon. Romney doesn't want to be liked. This ruthless politician is not all that likable, which is one reason why Gingrich and Santorum will battle him until the end. Instead, Romney wants to be tolerated and, above all, elected. Whether Romney will succeed is, of course, another matter. A recovering economy is not exactly a recipe for a Republican resurgence. But Romney remains the only candidate who poses a potent threat to Obama.

Image: Jessica Rinaldi