I just returned from a trip to New Hampshire, where I attended a town meeting with Mitt, at the veteran for foreign wars post in Hudson. Anyone interested in American politics has to have a soft spot for these kind of meetings; they provide a chance to see and judge the candidates “up close” (within 15 yards) in a personal setting. You get to see “regular citizens,” plus a smattering of the national elite journalists who swoop down to cover the locals, usually stopping in for an obligatory chowder or pie at some diner. You know, rubbing shoulders with the natives: Why I’m just a country journalist.
I did a tour four years ago, with Professor Daniel DiSalvo of CUNY, in the week before the New Hampshire primary. We saw almost all of the candidates up close—as well as Maureen Dowd without make up. What a sight that was!
The event at Hudson, as well as the debate on Saturday (and the commentary posted here by the two Peters), led to a few thoughts. Barring that much talked about Newtplosion, the only way to keep the Newtsurge from turning into a Newtsami is to keep the race from becoming, immediately, a two person contest. Funny thing about a two person race; someone has to win. The delegates need to divide among a few candidates, so that by the time of South Carolina the thing does not look to be over. So welcome Ron Paul (Peter L’s theory).
Regarding the debate on Saturday, Mitt said at a press conference in Hudson that his wife told him he shouldn’t be betting, which theologically for him is pretty sound advice. But that gaffe aside, I was not as negative on Mitt’s performance Saturday night as the others—on the basis of what it shows about him as a potential president. One of the key exchanges was on Israel. Romney made the point that as a leader who backs Israel, it’s not for him to spout theory or rhetoric that could be averse to Israel’s interest or prove inflammatory. Newt’s “invented people” goes in that direction, and while he did so speaking “as an historian,” I was judging him as a possible president. Not that everybody is thinking in those terms now. In addition, I thought Mitt’s comeback to Newt’s argument that he would have been a career politician was very funny and very good. Not the stuff that wins an election, but very nice.
Which brings me to the next point. The idea that Mitt Romney (or anyone else) is going to take out Newt in some one rhetorical stroke is highly unlikely. It sets up a standard that, baring some accident, can’t be met. Newt is too skillful a talker for this to happen. An audience has to want to be convinced, a little bit. If someone were to have told you a couple of months ago that Republicans could swallow a candidate that had taken funds from Mr. and Ms. Mac, I would have said impossible. Right now, many Republicans are swallowing just that; so I doubt that a one-liner from Mitt Romney is going to create a defining moment. The notion of the knock out blow is insane media hype. Either, as Pete S. says, people will come around after awhile to thinking that some of the flaws of Newt are pretty serious—or they won’t. Don’t expect a debate performance by an opponent to do this job. Right now, many people look at Newt as one who can administer a rhetorical pounding to Obama—and they want to see Barrack out for the count. Maybe that could happen, but I’m not sure I would nominate a candidate for that reason. As John Marshall might have said, “It’s a president we are electing.”
Back to Mitt, my impression from seeing him in person is that, while he has not been a politician of conviction, right now and as president he would follow a conservative line. The core of his policy would be the reduction of the overall percentage of government spending as a percent of GDP to 20% (from 25%) while also increasing slightly the percent that goes to the military and without asking for a tax rate increase. I believe that is what he would seek to do as president, so the question becomes simple vis a vis Newt: do you think this plan is enough now to qualify as a conservative, and do you think Mitt would be better able to (a) win the election and (b) more likely to succeed in moving the county most of the way to this goal. Mitt does not present this program as a hate government guy, or from a set of libertarian theoretical postulates. He was asked at one point about Americorps and a few other things. Instead of saying that these are a priori no nos, he argued that, get ready, a lot of things some might like are just going to have to be reduced or cut to bring government in line with what the country can afford and sustain; and that the failure to meet that goal now leads to a dire threat to American strength and to the continuation of a working capitalist system. He adds a pretty strong moral argument for the right and justice of liberty, including in the economic realm, i.e., no Obama “fairness.” This isn’t the red meat that some would like. But this is where I think he is and where he would want to go. To me, it’s pretty close to the Ryan direction.
Mitt’s problem, besides not having been a conviction conservative all along, is that he is not exactly a man of the people. To his credit, he does not try to be, like John Kerry in 2004. It wouldn’t work anyhow. He is well-spoken, has a sense of humor, and conveys earnestness, competence and sobriety; but he lacks the common touch that say, Mike Huckabee, has. He can’t touch the hearts of his audience, though I do believe that he can—and in this meeting did—convince people of a deep commitment to the country, and—to speak in conservative terms—to the essential free America we have known. His patriotism will have to suffice. Mitt did fairly well with an audience in New Hampshire, but many in New Hampshire are used to seeing this type of individual around. No question, it would be tougher for him in a place like west Tennessee—though not against Barrack Obama. Mitt is not going to be beloved by the country western crowd—he’s too sober for that—which is not to say that they couldn’t grow over time to respect him. That’s what tolerance is all about.
The campaign for now is a waiting game. There is little that Mitt Romney can do by himself to turn the tide. Yes, he has to avoid bad bets and perform at his best. But right now the outcome is not really in his hands. He can only hold on and wait to see what the electorate decides about the other fellow. That’s just the way it is sometimes.