Washington Watch: Can’t buy me love

The enthusiasm deficit has haunted Mitt Romney throughout the long and winding primary season, but loathing might save him.

March 14, 2012 23:00
4 minute read.
GOP candidate Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney Super Tuesday glum 390. (photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder )


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It feels like spring, but there’s little love in the air for Mitt Romney. The GOP frontrunner expected to have his party’s nomination sewn up by now so he could focus on sending Barack Obama back to Chicago. But too many Republicans just can’t find it in their hearts to embrace the former Massachusetts governor and are still hoping someone will come along who can make them fall in love. The enthusiasm deficit has haunted him throughout the long and winding primary season. It’s been said he has the charisma of Bob Dole, the GOP’s losing 1996 candidate and the aura of a loser.

But there’s a stronger emotion than love in this election; it’s loathing, and that is what Romney is counting on to lock up the nomination – and what the GOP is counting on to get out the vote against Obama.

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Spreading fear and loathing has been the hallmark of the Romney campaign, and nearly all has been aimed at his Republican rivals. The super PAC run by his friends and former aides has spent more than 90 percent of its money on ads trashing his rivals.

Romney’s rivals have responded with a few shots of their own, and you can bet the Obama campaign’s opposition research team in Chicago is collecting them for use this fall.

The primaries are expected to cost Romney about $75 million, but he has been raising more money than all his rivals and that will only improve after he locks up the nomination.

Newt Gingrich’s – and Binyamin Netanyahu’s – most generous benefactors ($11m. plus), casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife, are expected to shift their spending to Romney as soon as the former Speaker drops out of the race. Most big Jewish GOP givers are backing Romney, according to a report in the Forward. More than 10% of the $36m. raised by his super PAC came from Jewish donors, primarily ordinary people like Romney: mega-wealthy private equity investors, hedge fund managers and real estate developers.

Mitt’s money may not be able to buy love, but it can buy a lot of votes in what is expected to be a billion-dollar presidential election. Each campaign has its stable of billionaires, but Obama has what Romney lacks: a large network of small contributors, a sign of grass roots support.


The tough primary season has made Romney a better debater and campaigner, but it also has exposed two big weaknesses. He has failed to connect with people on a personal level (and judging by the allocation of spending he hasn’t tried very hard) and he has demonstrated what one Republican operative and former advisor called a “generous flexibility” on the issues, a desire to do what’s popular rather than what’s right. That explains his failure to criticize Rush Limbaugh’s recent display of misogyny.

Romney faces a big problem in following the Nixon dictum: run to the right for the nomination and the center for the general election. Most candidates can do it with guiltless ease, but Romney has moved so far from his roots as a Massachusetts moderate to being a self-defined “severe conservative” that making a Uturn could damage him on both ends.

The GOP’s ultra-conservative/tea party wing has had trouble accepting him despite his efforts to convince them of his ideological purity, and they may feel betrayed when he turns his attention to the middleof- the-road swing voters both parties need to win this election. If they see him moving too far to their left they may try to teach the GOP a lesson and stay home, not unlike what the anti-Vietnam movement did to the Democrats in 1968.

Many in the GOP’s evangelical base are troubled by Romney’s Mormon faith, but there’s no evidence it will be an issue for Jewish voters, and no one is blaming him for his church’s posthumous conversions of people like Anne Frank, Daniel Pearl and Holocaust victims.

His rhetoric on Israel has been a transparent attempt to make Obama look weak, but close examination shows their positions aren’t that much different.

Romney just sounds more strident. The Washington Post Fact Checker, Glenn Frankel, said Romney’s charge that Iran would get the bomb if Obama is reelected is just “silly-hyperbolic campaign rhetoric.”

Republicans don’t need to love Romney to vote for him. They just need to hate Barack Obama enough, and that is what we’ve been hearing from Romney when he hasn’t been smearing his fellow Republicans.

The pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC has already spent over $30m. on negative advertising compared to less than $1m. defining the candidate and his vision of America, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this month showed voters’ greatest concerns about Romney were “he waffles on the issues” and he’s “too wealthy and does not relate to the average person.” Romney may have the charisma of Bob Dole but he’s generating a kind of pragmatic enthusiasm in the corporate boardrooms, big banks, business schools and penthouses. The resulting flood of money may not buy love but will help fuel a highly negative campaign that will do little to change the perception that Mitt Romney is the champion of the 1 percent.


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