Maybe it’s not Mitt’s fault

Dan Anderson/reuters

THIS IS THE week to moan about Mitt.

And it’s certainly true that, despite his many advantages, Romney is having trouble closing the deal. What’s more, exciting though it will no doubt prove to statisticians, his new argument — hey guys, the delegate math makes me inevitable — seems unlikely to leave skeptics all aswoon.

But today, let’s play the contrarian. What if the real problem is less with Romney than with the conservatives and Tea Party types he’s having trouble winning over?


One big starboard side objection to Romney is that he authored Romneycare, which, with its individual mandate to carry health insurance, became the model for Obamacare. And that’s certainly true. But at the time, an individual mandate, based as it is on the notion of individual responsibility, was a well-regarded conservative idea. It certainly didn’t make him anathema to conservatives when he ran in 2008.

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So what’s changed? Simply put, conservative opinion about the mandate. Why? Because Barack Obama and the Democrats adopted it as the centerpiece of their plan. Suddenly an idea that had enjoyed widespread conservative support became the very manifestation of socialism or fascism or whatever the wild-eyed ism-accusation-du-jour happened to be with right-wing ideologues.

But that astonishing ideological about-face doesn’t reflect poorly on Romney. Rather, it should leave people wondering about the evanescent nature of conservative principles - and the pixilated perspective of the right-wing commentariat.

A second reason conservatives haven’t warmed to Romney is that he is neither a cultural warrior nor a bomb thrower.

Unlike Rick Santorum, who has emerged as his principal rival, Romney isn’t driven by a religion-rooted passion to do battle on social issues. And unlike both Santorum and Newt Gingrich, he is not a hyper-partisan blow torch.


During Santorum’s congressional career, the pugnacious Pennsylvania firebrand, nicknamed “Senator Slash,’’ demeaned the D.C. dialogue with his acetylene rhetoric and ad hominem attacks. On the presidential campaign trail, he displays a similar excess, accusing Obama of trying to take away American freedoms and of scheming like a drug dealer to hook the nation on entitlements, the better to expand his power.

During his days as a congressman, Gingrich and his political team formulated an entire political vocabulary of negativity, recommending that Republican candidates refer to their Democratic opponents in terms like sick, pathetic, radical, bizarre, corrupt, and traitor. Gingrich would have voters believe he’s matured, but in this campaign, he regularly labels Obama a “radical’’ and “the most dangerous president in modern American history,’’ and in a recent book, he wrote that Obama and the Democrats represent “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.’’

It’s not in Romney to utter similar absurdities. He’s a man of moderate temperament, one who can disagree without being disagreeable. In a campaign that thrives on hyperbolic nonsense, about the most he can muster is the (specious) charge that Obama went around the world apologizing for America early in his term, that he doesn’t understand what made this country great, and that he wants to turn the United States into “a European-style entitlement society.’’

That relative restraint may not make right-wing hearts race, but Romney’s measured demeanor helps render him the only Republican candidate with a reasonable chance of beating Obama. Either of his principal rivals would be an electoral disaster. (And as for Ron Paul, well, he’s Ron Paul, loved by his followers, but with no real prospect of becoming the Republican nominee, let alone the president.) That many conservatives would prefer to march into the fall behind Santorum, who lost his home state by 18 points in his 2006 reelection bid, or Gingrich, whose speakership created a national anti-GOP backlash, shows just how much the passion for partisanship and purity has come to trump pragmatism on the right.

Still, unless the GOP is suicidal, Romney will ultimately persevere, and with good reason: He’s the only remotely plausible president in this field.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.