January 17, 2008

Which Mitt Can Win?

Like many a corporate “€œrebranding”€ effort, Mitt Romney’s political persona has gone through a series of remarkable transformations this past year: he began as a dynamic corporate executive who gave everyone in Massachusetts healthcare, and then mutated into a social conservative for Iowa, before transfiguring into the inheritor of the Reagan legacy. In Michigan, Romney version 4.0 materialized”€”the outsider who will fix a “€œbroken government”€ and combat “€œWashington-style pessimism.”€ 

The general consensus is that the new new Mitt won by focusing on the economy: he promised Michiganders that the jobs that have migrated overseas would be coming back under a Romney administration. This rhetoric easily outshined John McCain’s straight-talk pessimism about high-paying manufacturing jobs being gone for good.

As David Brooks has pointed out, Romney wasn”€™t just talking about economic growth. He was making some rather grand promises about new (ahem) “€œcordial relations”€ between Washington and Detroit. Mitt pledged $20 million in research funding and assured workers that Washington would become an “€œengaged partner”€ in the American auto industry:

“€œIf I”€™m president of this country, I will roll up my sleeves in the first 100 days I”€™m in office, and I will personally bring together industry, labor, Congressional and state leaders and together we will develop a plan to rebuild America’s automotive leadership.”€  

As Daniel Larison and Ross Douthat have noted, this sounds a lot like state capitalism; at the very least, we should begin to worry whenever a politician announces that he has a “€œplan”€ to save an industry.  
Throughout Romney’s repackaging of himself over the years, he has consistently moved closer to movement conservative positions”€”whether it be on abortion, gun laws, and the Reagan legacy. (Video of Mitt claiming “€œAs I get older, Reagan gets smarter”€ is indicative of Romney’s rightward drift.) 

But when Romney brought up the possibility of a centralized industrial policy, this trend reversed itself. Although it’s understandable that hard-up blue-color workers would go in for promises of a return to the good old days, it’s doubtful that such rhetoric would play very well outside Michigan.     

Perhaps Romney is still in the best position to put back the pieces of the Reagan coalition. Hugh Hewitt, whose support for the former governor often borders on the mushy, certainly thinks so, and he could barely suppress his glee announcing that Michigan evangelicals actually chose Romney over Huckabee, their professed comrade. Hewitt views this as a harbinger of more base-rallying to come. But for Mitt to win again, he”€™ll probably need to pull off another metamorphosis. Is “€œthe candidate of hope”€ taken?  

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