If you watched Game Change, as every patriotic American must, you recall that the John McCain campaign’s decision to gamble on Sarah Palin stemmed from its view that it was losing. Not losing by a ton — McCain trailed Barack Obama by just a few points — but losing clearly enough that it needed to shake up the game board.
As Mitt Romney now turns to the general election, Republicans are facing essentially the same realization. Obama’s approval ratings have climbed to the point where he’s now in a position to win, albeit narrowly. He is enjoying somewhat more comfortable leads than his approval ratings would dictate because Romney is highly (even shockingly) unpopular.
The good news for Romney is that it’s much, much earlier in the campaign cycle now than it was when McCain chose Palin. The bad news is that current events seem more likely to make the picture worse, not better. The economy seems to be genuinely recovering, and independent voters increasingly believe the worst is behind us. If that trend continues, Obama is likely to reach the status of a Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, or Clinton in 1996 — an incumbent who is almost certain to win. Obviously, the recovery might sputter or some other outside events could spoil Obama’s approval. But the basic picture is that Romney needs some kind of, well, game change.
Republican strategists Bill Kristol and Michael Gerson both have columns attempting to grapple with the strategic dilemma. Romney, writes Gerson “must be something more than a generic Republican.” The trouble is that he has defined himself almost precisely thus. As Massachusetts governor, he had a bunch of highly unorthodox positions — health-care reform, aggressive support for gay rights and action to arrest climate change — but has abandoned all of them. His elevator pitch is “I’m a conservative businessman.” That is as generic Republican as you can get.
Gerson homes in on Romney’s need to improve his abysmal standing among Latinos. It helps that Romney will no longer need to knife his intra-party rivals from the right by portraying them as soft on illegal immigration and endorsing “self-deportation.” Yet the deeper problem here goes beyond immigration. Latinos vote for Democrats because they hold left-of-center views. Americans in general tend to oppose “big government” in the abstract and favor it in the particular. Latinos actually favor big government in the abstract. Asked if they prefer a smaller government with fewer services or a bigger government with more services, 75 percent say they prefer bigger government – 34 percent higher than the general public.
How does Romney get out of the box? If I were advising him, I’d urge him to move sharply toward the center. Endorse one of the bipartisan budget plans that raises taxes on the rich along with cutting entitlement spending. Promise action on climate change. Find a conservative Democrat to be your running mate. (Loathsome cipher Harold Ford would actually make a perfect counterpart for Romney.)
Will Romney do anything like this? One interesting revelation about McCain’s thought process in 2008 is that he placed enormous weight on underlying conservative discontent. He moved away from the center, not toward it, when the only kind of game change that stood any chance whatsoever was some kind of bipartisan gesture like picking Joe Lieberman. The political pros made shockingly bad decisions.
Romney faces the same basic dilemma. There’s probably nothing he can do to put himself in a position to win absent outside events — like a softening economy, a scandal, or foreign policy disaster — doing it for him. But Romney can only control what he can control. Now we will see what decision he makes — whether he remains frightened of angering distrustful conservatives, or whether he realizes they have nowhere else to go.