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1st Quarter 7:22

Joan Vennochi

Mitt Romney loses the battle of ideas

During a post-election conference call, Mitt Romney told disappointed donors that President Obama won the election by promising “gifts” to different groups of disadvantaged voters.

Democrats pounced. So did Republicans who are positioning themselves for 2016 by distancing themselves from their defeated nominee. Romney doesn’t get it, they said.

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Perhaps he finally does get it. In his typically awkward way, wasn’t the loser accepting the underlying theme of this election, as framed by the ultimate winner?

Obama flew from battleground state to battleground state to remind voters they faced “a choice between two different visions of America.” The choice, as defined by the incumbent, was “top down” versus “bottom up”; on your own versus all in it together.

In Romney’s language, that’s the difference between “gifts” to corporations and the rich, via tax breaks and less government regulation, and “gifts” to the less fortunate, via access to health care, low-interest college loans, and a path to citizenship. In Romney’s world, gifts to the rich stimulate the economy; gifts to the poor keep them that way.

On Election Day, voters chose Obama’s vision over Romney’s — or as Romney put it on that phone call to donors, “The Obama campaign was following the old playbook of giving a lot of stuff to groups that they hoped they could get to vote for them and be motivated to go out to the polls, specifically the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and young people.”

As grudging and insensitive as it sounds, Romney’s explanation for defeat in 2012 demonstrates growth since he first entered the political arena. After losing to Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, Romney wrote an opinion piece for The Boston Globe, published under the headline, “Ted’s attack for success.”

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That election cycle, Republicans swept into office across the country; Kennedy was virtually the only liberal to win. But, wrote Romney in the January 1995 op-ed, it would be wrong to attribute Kennedy’s success to ideology. The incumbent did not win “because he campaigned for the old liberal platform of soft welfare reform, the Clinton health care plan, and his watered-down crime bill.” He won because of a “well-planned attack on my Mormon faith” and “opposition research” about Bain Capital.

Romney also warned Republicans that it was a mistake to follow Kennedy’s formula. Instead, he argued, “It’s time for Democrats to realize that the old rhetoric that Republicans don’t care about the poor and middle class just isn’t working anymore. The issue isn’t who cares the most, it’s who can do the most. And most voters, especially middle-class voters, like Republican answers better than those Ted has been selling.”

Romney is consistent about one thing. He prefers to blame other people for his defeats. But in yet another Romney flip-flop, he has come full circle in his political analysis. Now he’s saying the old rhetoric does work; voters don’t believe Republicans care about the poor and middle class.

There is truth in what he wrote in 1995: “The issue isn’t who cares the most, it’s who can do the most.” But in 2012, enough voters didn’t believe Romney could do the most for them. The 1 percent doesn’t vote against their self-interest. Why should the 99 percent?

Until Republicans figure out how to sell their policies to a broader audience, the “old liberal platform” still resonates enough to elect a president.

As governor, Romney understood that. He embraced some of the same gift-giving philosophies as Obama, including access to affordable health care for all. As governor, he established scholarships for students headed to a state college or university. Once he even backed the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But as he set himself up for a presidential run, Romney stipulated that the children of illegal immigrants could not qualify for those state scholarships. Gifts like that, given to the right, hurt him with the middle.

During the campaign, Romney never told voters how the policies he embraced as a presidential candidate would help them — not as charity — but as a path to jobs, opportunity, and independence.

He lost the battle of ideas and for that, he has no one to blame but himself.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at Joan_Vennochi.
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