Every faction of the Republican Party will use the 2012 presidential campaign to draw conclusions that pander to their ideological biases.
Arch Tea Partiers will argue that the “moderate Mitt” of the debates let the wind out of the party’s sails. Party moderates will say the same thing about the self-described “severe conservative” who ran in the Republican primaries and appeared at the convention. Apologists for the Romney campaign will say that Superstorm Sandy put the president front and center and sapped the former Massachusetts governors’ campaign of strength when it was on the cusp of victory. Single-issue groups — pro-lifers, gun owners, immigration restrictionists, immigration advocates and others — will say that the candidate didn’t give them enough love. And so forth.
A quick look back at the campaign provides a simpler but less ideologically pleasing conclusion: Romney lost because he never gave a clear answer as to how he would govern. And this — governance itself — can explain a lot about what the Republican Party needs to do if it wants to reclaim the White House in 2016.
For all of his virtues and vices, I, as a Romney supporter, ended the campaign with very little idea as to how a President Romney would actually govern. And this wasn’t for lack of trying: I briefly met with the candidate during the primaries process and know many of his advisors.
Indeed, Romney had at least two opportunities to define his agenda for governance. First, his career as governor of Massachusetts — working with the Democratic Legislature to create a universal health care plan while hewing close to a Chamber of Commerce conservative line on other issues — offered an appealing centrist story. But the exigencies of the campaign and Republican distaste for the president’s healthcare plan made this type of tact impossible.
This wasn’t a huge problem since Romney could have come up with another message. And, with his vice presidential pick of Paul Ryan, Romney could have run on an agenda of decidedly smaller government. While Ryan’s plan was far from perfect — it takes too long to balance the budget and lacks a credible Social Security component — it was a coherent plan and a rejoinder to Obama’s quest for ever-bigger government. But Romney was late to endorse the plan on the campaign trail (Jon Huntsman was first) and, even after Ryan joined the ticket, he still ran ads that bashed Obama’s cuts in Medicare spending without mentioning that the Ryan plan also cuts Medicare spending.
Decently thought-out Social Security and Medicare plans proffered by the campaign, furthermore, never took center stage. Sometimes Romney was the arch fiscal conservative who would do everything within his power to balance the budget. At other times, he promised big new tax cuts and massive hikes in defense spending.
Thus, by not articulating a clear plan for governance, Romney ceded his most obvious advantage to Obama: unlike the recently-reelected man from Illinois, he has real management experience. But simply talking about such experience is no substitute for articulating a vision of how it will work in practice. And this was a big mistake.
Historically, candidates with executive experience either as governors or generals have far outperformed those who lacked those qualifications. In the post World War II era, indeed, Romney is only the second candidate with prior executive experience to lose the presidency to a candidate who had no such experience before taking the Oval Office. (The first was New York Gov. Tom Dewey, who lost to Harry Truman.) But Romney’s inability to talk about governance made it impossible for him to take full advantage of this natural strength.
Mitt Romney is a good man and, insofar as he won the Republican nomination, he ran a decent campaign. But his failure to articulate a way that he would govern cost him the election and offers an important lesson to his party.