Nominee Romney. It took six years, 36 debates, epic organization and a small fortune, but it appears he will finally claim that title. The question is whether he is willing to learn from his experience.
Despite the GOP handwringing over the length of its contest, the primary did serve one purpose: competition. Competition, at its best, makes the last man standing stronger. And Mr. Romney’s rivals—both in their successes and their failings—helped sharpen the contours of today’s political landscape. Each one has had a lesson to offer him. Combined, they offer a blueprint to victory in the tougher competition against Barack Obama this fall.
The two candidates who might, oddly, provide the biggest takeaway are Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman. Their campaigns were short-lived, for the reason that voters did not understand their purpose. Politics is about vision, yet Mrs. Bachmann never got beyond appealing to “mothers,” or Mr. Huntsman beyond ramblings about China.
President Obama has a vision for this country, even if it’s not one to which most aware Americans would subscribe. Mr. Romney is adept at warning about this Obama view and insisting that his view is different. But what is it? The governor has been inching toward a vision, but its description has been long-winded, framed in overused phrases (“freedom” or “the American Dream”), and its substance lost amid 59-point plans. The biggest test ahead for Mr. Romney will be whether he can define a grand purpose for his presidency in a clear and compelling way.
For inspiration, he can look to Herman Cain. His lesson was that it isn’t enough to talk about the economy; a winning candidate has to present big, bold, pro-growth solutions. Mr. Cain’s 9-9-9 plan had flaws, but it appealed to Americans in its freshness and its daring. Mr. Romney dragged through much of the primary with the least inspiring tax plan of his competitors, though he improved it in February—with a 20% across-the-board cut in income tax rates. There’s no reason he can’t improve it more, say by also including an optional and clean flat tax.
Columnist Kim Strassel breaks down Wednesday’s assault by a top Democratic operative.
Speaking of big and bold, he could also study Newt Gingrich. Mr. Romney is fond of poking Mr. Gingrich about moon colonies, but at least the former speaker has ideas. Voters were drawn by Mr. Gingrich’s notions to replace the EPA, and he pulled out a Georgia victory in part on his vision for harnessing America’s new energy boom. The way for Mr. Romney to prove he has a vision is to lead with innovative reform—on energy, taxes, education, entitlements, regulation.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry offered pointers on one way to enthuse an unconvinced base: states’ rights. Gaffes aside, Mr. Perry’s biggest applause lines came when he talked about Texas’ economic success and the need to get states out from under the federal thumb. To the extent Mr. Romney talks federalism, it is usually as an excuse for RomneyCare. Federalism is a tea party motivator, and Mr. Romney could both reassure and energize conservatives by working states’ rights into his vision of a limited federal government.
Columnist Kim Strassel on the things GOP rivals taught the likely Republican nominee.
Mr. Romney owes thanks to Rick Santorum for exposing his biggest liabilities, in particular his lack of contrast with Mr. Obama on key issues. The obvious example is Mr. Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan, the model for ObamaCare, which the candidate has yet to own up was a mistake.
Mr. Santorum’s argument that Mr. Romney is “accepting the rhetoric of the left” on tax policy is another example. Mr. Obama isn’t running on the economy or his record; he can’t. He’s running on class warfare, encouraged by Mr. Romney’s reluctance to confront it. If Mr. Romney won’t forcefully make the case that lower tax rates for all is what produces jobs and economic growth—but instead joins the president to beat up “the rich”—then Republicans are cooked. Mr. Santorum got that.
Finally, from Ron Paul—who is still plodding toward Tampa—Mr. Romney can learn the value of demonstrating principle. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire backer of Newt Gingrich, recently complained that every time he talks to Mr. Romney, the candidate responds: “Well, let me think about it.” A prevailing view of Mr. Romney is that he has no core, can’t make a call unless presented with a briefing book. One of his best moments came in October, when he was asked an impromptu question about housing policy. His off-the-cuff answer—calling to let the foreclosure process run its course—wasn’t popular, but it was right. He needs more such moments.
The Romney primary victory was largely one of stolidity. The campaign was that of a front-runner who used his organizational might to knock down each rival but took few risks. It worked in a primary full of flawed and underfunded opponents, but in the general election Mr. Romney will be the insurgent, running against a well-funded political pro with a big megaphone. Now’s the time for the campaign to change gears, and this last year provided no lack of tips for how to do it.