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Ramesh Ponnuru and Reihan Salam, two of the right’s smartest and most intellectually honest intellectuals disagree over whether Mitt Romney should run for president in 2016. Ponnuru has the better case, but, in reading both men, it becomes clear the degree to which Romney was not the reason for the GOP defeat(s) in 2012.

Ponnuru points out that Romney, whatever his personal flaws and tactical mistakes, actually ran ahead of the vast majority of Republican Senate candidates in competitive races. Salam shows that the reality of Romney’s familial life and charitable giving contrasts with his 2012 image as the candidate of heartless greed and contempt for the poor. Salam chalks up Romney’s main problem to “his defensiveness and his fear of alienating Tea Party conservatives he didn’t truly understand.”

There is some truth to that. Romney adopted an across-the-board income tax rate cut in an effort to win over conservatives in the latter part of his campaign against Santorum. It probably didn’t help much with conservative voters (who showed little interest in large tax cuts during the 2012 cycle). Since a people at, or under the earnings median have little or no income tax liability, Romney’s plan would have substantially cut taxes on high-earners while doing little for working families that had payroll tax liabilities. During the general election, this played into Romney’s image as the candidate who prioritized the interests of the rich. But Romney did not support large tax cuts on high-earners when he was becoming the candidate of the large donors early in the 2012 cycle. He only adopted a cut to the top marginal income tax rate in a misguided attempt to appeal to the Reagan-nostalgia of populist conservatives who might be tempted to vote for Santorum. It was a move that was all downside.

Even though Romney did fear and misunderstand the Tea Partiers, it wasn’t this fear that caused him (and the Republican party generally) to build their general election campaign around an obsession with the job-creating business owners who “built that.” Romney made his 47 percent crack to a group of rich donors. Karl Rove’s group paid for an ad where old business owners complained about Obama’s taxes and regulations (without actually naming any). The Republicans, Tea Partiers and establishment alike, could agree to enthusiastically defend the social contributions of business owners and oppose Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment. Unlike immigration, “you built that” was an internally unifying issue—even if it meant little or nothing to middle-class and struggling swing-voters. Focusing so heavily on the defense of business owners was the path of least resistance, and the Romney campaign (and Republicans more broadly) took it.

But the path of least resistance was not the only one available. An alternative path can be seen in Mitch Daniels’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. Daniels said:

As Republicans, our first concern is for those waiting tonight to begin or resume the climb up life’s ladder. We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have-nots. We must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.

That can sound pretty abstract, but Republican Senator Mike Lee proposed that an expanded child tax credit to help working families, flex-time to help families balance work and parental responsibilities, and credentialing reform to make it faster and more convenient for workers to gain skills that will allow them to get higher-paying job. That was exactly what was missing from the 2012 Republican campaign.

What is most encouraging is the ways in which Mitch Daniels and Mike Lee are different. Daniels is a protégé of long-time establishment Republican Senator Richard Lugar, and a former functionary in the George W. Bush administration. He is as establishment as establishment gets. Lee got to the Senate as a Tea Party insurgent who knocked off an incumbent Republican senator. And yet, even though they hail from different factions of the party, they have more in common with each other than with many members of their own faction.

This gets to a division within the GOP that is more important than the fights between the Tea Party and the establishment. On the one side you have simplistic answers: flat taxes that would never survive the scrutiny of a general election campaign, or simple flattery of the party’s donors and activists. On the other side you have the harder but necessary work of crafting an agenda that is consistent with the principles of the party’s voters, but addresses the concerns of swing voters.

This is where Romney comes in—or doesn’t. Romney is very hard working when it comes to the techniques of politics. He far outdistanced his 2012 Republican rivals in hiring staff, preparing for debates, and lining up donors, but whether running as a moderate Massachusetts Republican Senate candidate in 1994, as the most orthodox conservative presidential candidate in 2008, or as the defender of business in 2012, Romney has always chosen the path of least resistance when it came to strategy. We can hope for a middle-class-oriented conviction politician as the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, but in the meantime, we should see what we can do to make a middle-class-oriented conservative politics an easier choice for those more opportunistic candidates that we will always have with us.  

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.

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