Republican party leaders are telling Mitt Romney it’s time to go positive.
They are urging the presumptive presidential candidate to drop the negative tone that marked his primary campaign and to ease the tough rhetoric he has aimed at President Obama. The party leaders are encouraging Romney to push a sunny conservative vision reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, a vision that can both inspire the base while appealing to independent voters. These high-ranking Republicans tell The New York Times that the former Massachusetts governor should focus on what he believes, not just what he is against.
Conservative pundit William Kristol recently wrote in his magazine The Weekly Standard that Romney should stop responding to President Obama. Instead, Kristol said, Romney should “give serious speeches about the Constitution and the Supreme Court, the case for limited government.” Above all, “Romney has to behave presidentially–more like a leader than a campaigner.”
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, said, “I think Mitt needs to stay about the fray a bit, and to offer a hopeful message that can lift people’s sprits up because after the end of this four or five months of really negative campaigning, I think people are going to be motivated by a more positive message.”
The advice appears sound, but for one thing: What exactly does Mitt Romney believe?
To secure the Republican presidential nomination, Romney had to run far to the right, taking hard-line positions on immigration, women’s issues, gun control, and the like. Yet he frequently failed to convince the base of his conservatism; hence the Romney campaign used its vast financial resources to pummel opponents with negative ads.
It worked. Conservatism and negativity secured the nomination.
If Romney now pushes the same conservative buttons as he did during the campaign, he risks confirming into Team Obama’s narrative of him as a “severe conservative.” Any repeat of the campaign’s extreme conservatism would likely alienate Hispanics, women, and moderate independents.
What then can Romney do? Tell voters he didn’t mean it, that he’s really a moderate Massachusetts Republican at heart?
Any attempt to present a more moderate image, to soften the conservative edges, leaves Romney open to the old charge he that he has no core, that he is a flip-flopper who will do and say anything to advance his political career.
That’s why the Obama campaign’s current strategy of featuring Romney’s conservatism is brilliant. It paints Romney into a far-right corner, limiting his room to maneuver while reminding voters of the unpopular positions he took during the primaries. If Romney tries to escape that corner, he revives the flip-flopper accusation by his own words, without President Obama having to appear negative.
Romney has only one option: To go negative.