Mitt Romney’s three state sweep this Tuesday is being touted as the tipping point in his surge toward the Republican nomination. The candidate whose greatest ability has been his inevitability now seems all but destined to become the Republican nominee. But in this moment of near-triumph, it is worth examining the great failure of Romney’s campaign so far. In a country that loves to see candidates grow and evolve, with a media primed to write the redemptive campaigning comeback story, Romney never seemed to get better as a candidate, never had that turnaround moment.
Instead, he has been the Steady Eddie of the campaign trail, grinding his way toward the nomination, surviving the occasional gaffe, with no appreciable improvement in his political skill set. His constancy is impressive but his inability to learn, to improvise, to get better, is disturbing. While it is fun to bash an inexperienced opponent by saying the presidency is no place for on-the-job training, the job is so different from any other job that on-the-job training is the only way to function effectively in office. Former governors like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have had to work hard to adjust to the ways of Washington, while former senators like Barack Obama and John Kennedy have had to work equally hard to master the executive skills required.
Different presidents come in with different talents, but all need to adapt, to stretch, to grow. Either Romney does not have that ability at all, and is just too rigid, or he does not have that ability politically, and is just too patrician. Either way, this failure to kickstart his campaign, to turn it around, and to become the new improved candidate, is worrying.
As a result, Romney looks like he is on his way to inheriting the nomination rather than earning it. The last candidate to back his way into the nomination, Bob Dole, enjoyed higher popularity ratings in the spring of 1996 than Romney does. After months of exposure to the American people, after tens of millions of dollars spent, the latest polls suggest that only about a third of Americans view Romney favorably, and half view him unfavorably. Those low numbers and Romney’s rigidity should be sobering to Republicans.
Of course, they can point to the Ford surge of thirty points or so in 1976, the Dukakis crash of twenty points or so in 1988, and even the repositioning Bill Clinton had to do in 1992. Campaigns are volatile. The stakes are high. The fight will be intense. But unless Mitt Romney can start incorporating feedback, making adjustments, improving his political skills, he will be broadcasting a warning message to Republicans who desperately want to win in November, as well as Americans who desperately want to see strong leadership in the White House, in the event that he nevertheless does win in November.