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The Romney-Obama matchup

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Michael Gerson
February 3, 2012
— The granting of Secret Service protection after Mitt Romney’s decisive Florida victory did not prevent him from immediately shooting himself in the foot.

“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” he explained. “My campaign is focused on middle-income Americans.”


It is problematic for a politician to declare any group of citizens beneath his attention—either the bottom 1 percent or the top 1 percent. But those in the top 1 percent, at least, can fend for themselves.


There are few things more powerful in politics than the confirmation of a stereotype, which is Romney’s main political risk. A wealthy man can prove that he empathizes with average people—see the examples of aristocrats such as Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt. But Romney has yet to prove it. He could start by making the economic advancement of the very poor a central concern of his campaign.


Republicans are still getting accustomed to Romney as their nominee. For many, the failure of Newt Gingrich was like sidestepping a falling anvil. It has inspired more relief than jubilation. Now Republicans are left to ponder the Romney-Obama matchup.


Romney’s strengths: His political skills—his mastery of policy details and his ability to extemporaneously explain his views—are superior to those of recent nominees such as Bob Dole and John McCain. He is seldom stumped or flustered. He learns from his mistakes. His initial responses to attacks on his personal wealth, for example, were poor but quickly got better. He eventually proved himself capable of tough attacks on Gingrich—a distressing but important qualification in a presidential contender. Romney is a fairly moderate candidate who emerged from a conservative primary process, giving him the ability to appeal to independents in the general election. He can claim the role of economic fixer in a time when there is much to be fixed. Solid majorities of registered voters view Romney as possessing the leadership qualities to be president and as capable of managing the government effectively.


His weaknesses: Romney has been consistently unable to manufacture excitement—the most important commodity produced by a presidential campaign. Romney himself can come across as formal and slightly plastic, particularly when compared to Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. (Given the fact that Barack Obama is also fuzziness-challenged, this comparison is more of a draw.) Romney has the aura of a 1950s TV father figure—upright, earnest, kindly, a little out of touch. This is not inauthentic—actually, it is admirable—but it is distant from our current cultural norms.


Obama will pound on Romney’s personal wealth and the rate at which he has paid taxes. Romney’s greatest vulnerability on this issue may be his own tin ear, displayed in his brush-off of the poorest. And Romney has earned a reputation for ideological variability—the unavoidable consequence of winning the governorship of a very liberal state before winning the nomination of a very conservative party. Any confirmation of this reputation would be damaging.


So how does the Romney-Obama contest stack up? Obama is a skilled but significantly weakened political figure. The facts of economic stagnation testify against him. He has been forced off the pedestal of great, unifying ideals and now pursues a base-oriented strategy of tax increases and complaints about economic unfairness.


Unlike the broad alliance of aspiration he assembled in 2008, Obama is rounding up the old Al Gore and John Kerry political coalition. Romney does not possess George W. Bush’s more potent appeal to conservatives, which was both religious and anti-elitist. But Romney has an easier case to make than Bush had in either of his elections. In 2000, Bush ran against a humming Clinton economy. In 2004, he was weighed down by Iraq. Romney has neither of these obstacles to overcome.


In this campaign, both candidates are generally viewed as skilled and qualified. Barring conflict with Iran or the collapse of the euro, the outcome of the election will be greatly influenced by the perception of economic conditions on Election Day—a bit of conventional wisdom that is conventional for good reason.


But this remains an evenly divided country on the presidential level, which means that political inevitability can be confounded by the smallest things: a serious gaffe, a stirring convention speech, a strong ground game in Ohio or Florida, or even the votes of the very poor.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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