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Romney’s Weaknesses Still on Full Display

Rick Santorum’s weekend interview with the Wall Street Journal reinforced the impression that his candidacy provides the clearest contrast with Mitt Romney’s latest attempts at branding himself—described here in the Washington Post. The contrast is not likely to favor Romney, and with the big evangelical endorsement going to Santorum this weekend, the former Pennsylvania senator might be in the strongest position of the remaining “not Romneys.”

At the end of that Post profile comes this quote from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of rhetoric and communication at the University of Pennsylvania, about the image Romney projected after his New Hampshire victory speech:

“It’s difficult to look at that picture and say, yes, he woke up in the morning and decided to eliminate entire companies and throw large numbers of people out of work because all he cares about is money,” Jamieson said. “The visual rebuttal is devoted family and wife — and look at those adorable grandchildren!”

In other words, the most effective rebuttal the Romney campaign has yet produced to the accusation that he “looted” companies for profit is: “Who, me?” but leaving that aside, his family-man image is certainly a plus, especially if you think Newt Gingrich is Romney’s main rival. And, given the polls and attack ads, that would be a reasonable conclusion. But as difficult an opponent as Gingrich can be, Santorum remains a challenging matchup for Romney.

Santorum, too, has a reputation as a family man—more so than any of the other candidates, arguably. And Santorum’s campaign remains one of only two that isn’t really about President Obama per se, and therefore possesses its own raison d’être (Ron Paul is the other). Santorum worries about the breakdown of the family, and he has concrete plans to address that. He worries, too, about blue-collar workers, and has a plan to specifically address that as well. And then there’s this, from the Journal interview:

Though a career politician, he seems refreshingly unwilling to pander.

Outside a polling place in Bedford, a young mother expresses interest in early childhood programs. Mr. Santorum responds that Head Start has not delivered the promised results.

At Mastricola Elementary School in Merrimack, a wise voter suggests that Mr. Santorum should push even harder for growth with a flatter tax system that applies equally to everyone. Mr. Santorum is cheerful but gives no indication he’ll take the advice.

Nor does he give ground in our discussion.

I think this overstates the extent to which Santorum refuses to pander; I’ve watched many of his town hall events, and he’s certainly not immune to pandering. But Gingrich’s natural instinct on the campaign trail is to agree with the premise of virtually any question a voter asks him, and then attempt to steer his answer in his own direction. And Romney’s habit of trying to be all things to all people has, to conservatives, defined his candidacy. Santorum does, indeed, best his rivals when it comes to the self-discipline to avoid pandering.

The extent to which Gingrich’s attacks on Romney’s finance background caught the former Massachusetts governor off-guard has been obvious from Romney’s responses: an attack on Bain is an attack on capitalism itself; his work at Bain was kind of like Obama’s auto bailout; etc. If Romney thinks the promise that he and Obama both want to do the same things but he’ll be much better at it is going to win votes in Ohio, he is mistaken. And if he thinks Santorum’s reputation as a sincere, principled family man with blue-collar credibility is no longer a threat to his candidacy, he may very well be mistaken on that front as well.