2009: Romney Emerges as Top Issues Play to His Strength / Gerald Seib, WSJ

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Thanks, Steve St.Clair


Romney Emerges as Top Issues Play to His Strength
Gerald F. Seib
July 3, 2009
Wall Street Journal
Capital Journal

Most Republicans have just finished what might be called the spring of their discontent. Not much went right in the first half of the year; not much to cheer about.

But not Mitt Romney. For this unsuccessful 2008 Republican presidential contender, it is hard to imagine how events could be moving more decisively in his favor in 2009. One can almost hear him wondering: Why didn’t things break this way last year?

Let us count the ways that the world has conspired to help Mr. Romney. At a time when the Republican Party is straining to find new leaders, other prominent party members who aspire to that role — Govs. Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal and Mark Sanford, and Sen. John Ensign — have stumbled or, in the case of Gov. Sanford, flamed out in spectacular fashion. Mitt Romney now looks by comparison like the serious adult in the room.

While other Republicans have withered, Mitt Romney has returned to the spotlight as a leading candidate of the minority party, WSJ’s Gerald Seib reports.

Beyond that, the national agenda is squarely focused on the economy — which plays to Mr. Romney’s strength as a successful businessman — rather than on national security, which benefited Sen. John McCain in last year’s primaries, or on the social issues where Mr. Romney’s tendency to shift about has caused him so much trouble.

And beyond the economy, what are the other big items on the agenda? Well, one is the auto industry, which happens to play nicely to the Romney background as a Michigander and son of an auto-company executive. The other is health care, which tees up Mr. Romney to talk about the health overhaul he led in Massachusetts while that state’s governor. All this leads, inevitably enough, to talk of Mr. Romney already emerging as a leading contender for the party’s next presidential nomination. Of course, talking about the 2012 presidential race at the midpoint of 2009 is silliness on stilts. Mr. Romney says he doesn’t know whether he will run, which is the only sensible thing to say.

“He’s very genuine when he says he hasn’t made a decision about 2012,” says Kevin Madden, a close aide during the presidential campaign and part of a small team of informal advisers. “I know him well enough to know that when he makes a decision he goes 100 miles an hour. Right now it’s in a lower gear.”

Besides, talk of a presidential candidacy misses the more relevant point. Republicans are looking for a voice to speak for the party in exile, and Mr. Romney is starting fill the role quite nicely.

That would explain why he was on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, the Fox News Channel on Wednesday, ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” two weeks ago, and why he was in Newsweek with an essay on health care not long ago and…well, you get the idea.

In fact, one of the questions Mr. Romney’s advisers are wrestling with is how to avoid over-exposure. But more exposure seems certain as the health-care debate heats up in Congress, and Mr. Romney is called upon to compare his health overhaul in Massachusetts to the one Democrats are proposing. He is able to say that his plan incorporated some aspects of overhaul that Democrats embrace — a mandate that every citizen acquire some form of coverage, for example — while avoiding the element that Republicans really despise, a government-sponsored insurance plan to compete with the offers of the private sector.

More broadly, Mr. Romney has developed a well-modulated critique of President Barack Obama, one that is tough without sounding harsh. On the economy, for example, he acknowledged on “Meet the Press” that the economy is likely to rebound next year, and criticized the Obama stimulus plan not as a disaster or a mistake, but as a package that simply hasn’t helped much because it invested too little in the private sector.

If the stimulus package “had been created properly and focused on creating jobs, we would have come out of the recession faster,” he said. More Romneyisms are coming. He is finishing a book to be published early next year. It will be, says aide Eric Fehrnstrom, an “ideas book describing challenges in America.”

Yet the most important thing Mr. Romney is doing may lie elsewhere, in the air miles and shoe leather he is investing to help fellow Republicans. That is the kind of loyalty-inducing investment that can come back to benefit a presidential candidate.

He has made appearances for the Republican candidates in the two governor’s races being held this year, in Virginia and New Jersey. One Republican senator up for re-election next year, Robert Bennett of Utah, already is running a television ad playing up a Romney endorsement. Last year, Mr. Romney’s political action committee endorsed 84 Republican candidates for federal office and passed out more than $400,000 in contributions, while Mr. Romney appeared at 34 campaign events for Republican congressional candidates.

Mr. Romney still has problems, of course, not least the lingering feeling that he has shifted his positions to pander to his party’s social conservatives. But all told, most prominent Republicans would happily trade their problems for Mr. Romney’s right now.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com


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