In the aftermath of Rick Santorum’s sweep of the three states that held elections on Tuesday, many observers are counseling Mitt Romney to do something to energize a conservative base that is having trouble mustering any enthusiasm for the Republican frontrunner. Pundits have pondered his dilemma and prescribed a full program of activities and speeches designed to fire up the GOP grass roots and to finally convince them the former Massachusetts governor cares deeply about their issues and can be trusted to govern as a conservative.
But the problem with this analysis is those demanding Romney to inspire conservative passion are asking him to do the impossible. While such a feat would certainly be desirable — for both him and his party — Romney can still win the Republican nomination without morphing into Ronald Reagan, let alone Mike Huckabee. But if he is to win — and that’s a proposition that looks a bit less inevitable than it did on Monday — it will only be on his own terms. If Republicans are to embrace Romney, it must be the real Mitt Romney–flaws and all–not an artifice designed to please the audience at the CPAC conference. Those who wish for Romney to discover some new approach to Republicans are dreaming. After a campaign that has been going full bore for the last nine months — not to mention his first presidential run four years ago — and 16 debates, we have already seen all that Mitt Romney has to offer Republicans.
Romney’s strengths are obvious and impressive. He is someone with a deep understanding of economic issues and vast executive experience in both the public and private sectors. He can also put forward credible conservative positions on foreign policy and has come to embrace stands that satisfy the right on social issues. Though he is rightly accused of having flip-flopped on some issues, he is also a person who has lived an exemplary life and embodies the values of morality, decency and hard work.
But he is not a man who can fire up the base with his ability to articulate conservative ideas or the resentment that so many on the right feel about the liberal establishment, the media or popular culture. That’s Newt Gingrich’s territory. Nor is he a fervent social conservative in the manner of Santorum. He is a technocratic problem solver who can read the lyrics from the conservative hymnal but is no better at singing its melody than he is at finding the correct tune to “America the Beautiful.”
Romney’s inability to connect with ordinary voters or conservatives can’t be fixed. The only real passion in his political portfolio comes out when he discusses economic ideas or when he tries to articulate his belief in American exceptionalism that is at the heart of his life’s work in politics, business and his church. And it is to those virtues that he must cling. Given his opponents’ liabilities and political weaknesses, this ought to be good enough to win him the GOP nomination, even if it turns out to be less of the cakewalk that seemed likely only a few days ago.
Should Romney try to change his approach in order to keep up with Santorum’s passion or should he allow his advisers to convince him to go negative on the Pennsylvanian the way he took down Gingrich, it will not help him. It may be once the cloak of inevitability is stripped away from Romney, most conservatives will flock to a candidate like Santorum who is better at playing to the conservative crowd. But if Romney is to win it will be as the Mitt Romney we already know. He literally has no more tricks to pull out of his bag, and to expect him to come up with new ones is unrealistic and somewhat unfair.