Richard Reeves

Romney and Lose Lose Politics

LOS ANGELES -- If Mitt Romney had walked by a room called The Forum at the University of Southern California last Wednesday, he would quit his presidential race right now.

The speakers were a retired but still partisan Democratic political consultant, Robert Shrum, and his wife, Marylouise Oates, who describes herself as "a recovering journalist." As you might expect, they ripped the Republican candidate-in-waiting up one side and down the other, Shrum talking about Romney's strategy, such as it is, and Oates focused on the former Massachusetts governor's attitudes toward half the electorate, the female half.

The program was part of a continuing series called "The Road to the White House 2012," sponsored by the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy and several other campus organizations focusing on politics and public policy. Fair and balanced? Forget about that. The programs do, however, alternate between liberal speakers and conservative champions.

Shrum, who has worked dozens of Democratic campaigns at the highest levels, is now a professor at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. (There are no short names in the academic fora.) He not only indexed Romney's obvious shortcomings as a candidate, but argued that the Republican Party is in a lose-lose situation.

He started by pointing out that the more time Romney spends in a state, the lower his approval rating goes in that state. Example: In Ohio, perhaps the single most important fall battleground, a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that Romney was viewed more unfavorably after the March primary than favorably, a reversal of his former lead in that category over Sen. Rick Santorum. But, of course, running against a religious fanatic in a key state primary is different than running against a sitting president who has done a pretty good job of trying to right the economy and trying to get out of America's insane wars in the Middle East and Asia -- a president who can also match him dollar-for-dollar in campaign spending.

Moderate Republicans, Shrum argued, would revolt if Santorum improbably wins the New York and Pennsylvania primaries and the nomination and fails to become president. Conservative Republicans will go berserk if Romney wins the nomination and then loses to Obama. One more time, as in 1960, the party's right wing will argue that only a "real conservative" can win. Enter Barry Goldwater. They mean Reagan, of course, but he's not running.

Romney, Shrum continued, is actually a prisoner of the right wing. He's not one of them -- they don't use words like "marvelous" when talking about budgets or anything else. "He's basically on constant probation with conservatives," said Shrum, so he has to give them anything they want in this campaign. Oates underlined that point, saying that Romney has had to live with the new conservative dogma that has moved (back) from anti-abortion to anti-contraception -- at a time when more than 90 percent of Catholic women think contraception is no longer an issue. Santorum, a candidate Opus Dei would approve of, has lost the Catholic vote in most every state.

Shrum also added that the Republicans have lost their "Democrats are soft on defense" wedge issue, because Obama has not been soft on national security. The only thing they have left to say is that he should attack Iran. Unfortunately for them, the president is not nuts.

And then there's "Obamacare." Shrum argued that if the "tea party Supreme Court," as he called them, overturns national health care, Obama will be helped, not hurt, because the liberal base will unite as never before.

Never say never in politics. But if Romney dispatches a weak field of his party colleagues, money can't buy happiness but it is very helpful in politics. Cash on the barrelhead is winning the Republican nomination, but his real problems begin after he becomes the party's candidate.

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