The Mau-Mauing of Mitt Romney

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

With Mitt Romney showing vulnerability yet again, it’s an interesting time to study the behavior of Republican elites. Most of them swarmed all over Newt Gingrich and denounced him as unacceptable after the South Carolina primary, when Gingrich had a window to win Florida and seize command of the race. In the course of doing so, many of them offered some kind words for Rick Santorum, who at the time was an also-ran. But you’re not seeing Party leaders try to rally around Santorum as the alternative to Romney. Instead they’re trying to jack up Romney for more policy concessions.

Romney’s plan for his campaign against Barack Obama is simple, and rooted in a clear-eyed reading of the data. He has one enormous asset, which is that Obama presided over an economic crisis. He wants to run against that. He does not want to run a campaign comparing the Republican vision to Obama’s vision, because Obama is both personally more popular than the Republicans, and his ideas are, in general, more popular as well. The House Republican budget is filled with wildly unpopular ideas — cutting taxes for the rich, privatizing and cutting Medicare, and deregulating Wall Street and the health insurance industry. Romney has endorsed the budget, which is now party scripture, but he does not want to run on it.

Conservative Republicans want to make sure that Romney isn’t just telling them what they want to hear only to get into office and govern the way he governed in Massachusetts. So they’re mau-mauing him, raking him over the coals for his timidity, and trying to force him to commit himself more publicly and openly to their agenda. The Wall Street Journal editorial page takes Romney to task today for proposing to index the minimum wage to inflation. (The minimum wage is set by law at a fixed dollar amount, so over time inflation erodes its value unless Congress passes regular increases.) Conservatives urge him to box out Santorum by adopting more right-wing position:

“There is not exactly Romney-mania right now,” Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl told POLITICO, adding that the former Massachusetts governor “absolutely” must shore up the weaknesses with the GOP base that were on such vivid display Tuesday.

“Playing it safe, which Romney tends to do, is not going to get it for him,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a 2008 Romney supporter and a leading voice of his party’s conservative bloc, who called the results this week “a signal.”

And Paul Ryan, in a speech tonight to the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual Washington crazy-fest, prods Romney to abandon his strategy of running against Obama simply on the theme that the economy stinks:

I know there are people in this town who are terrified at the prospect of an election with real alternative visions at stake. “Make it a referendum. Win by default,” they say. “Just oppose — we can win that way. Don’t propose bold ideas — that’s too risky.” I’ll admit, the easy way is always tempting. But my friends, if that’s all we stand for, then what are we doing at here CPAC — the place where so many giants of our movement came to advance their boldest ideas?  The next President will face fiscal and economic challenges that are huge, almost unprecedented. He can’t resolve these challenges if he wins by default. He needs a mandate — not just to displace Barack Obama, but to preserve and strengthen the very Idea of America.

This is, in fact, horrible advice. The bad economy is the only reason Republicans have a chance to defeat Obama in 2012, and Romney elevating the profile of Ryan’s ideas would be Obama’s best chance of hanging on if the recovery is still limping in November. Romney can still implement Ryan’s ideas if he wins without a mandate — look at George W. Bush in 2000, running as a compassionate, bipartisan critic of the GOP Congress, losing the popular vote, and implementing his agenda anyway.

I suspect conservatives don’t actually believe Romney needs to campaign on their ideas in order to implement them. They’d be perfectly happy with him running a stealth campaign, winning by being the out-party during a recession, and then implementing an agenda he soft-pedaled during the campaign. What they want is to ensure that Romney will really do it. So they’re trying to force him to shout it rather than whisper it. Once he wins the nomination, they’ll have no more leverage, so this is the time to make him do it.