So this may be a few days late, but I was lucky enough to attend the National Review Institute’s event over this past weekend. There’s been quite a bit of buzz about what happened, but in case you missed it or are unable to read between the lines over at The Corner, let me sum it up for you in no uncertain terms:
Mit Romney, fighting hard to overcome his two deadly M’s (Moderatism and Mormonism), ascended Mount Reagan and turned to the gathered National Review throng all but ready to assume the conservative mantle. Then he opened his mouth and laid a big, fat egg.
Prior to his speech that evening the air was positively giddy; one person in attendance told me that Romney was the “best retail politician he’d ever seen — including Reagan.” And while Romney’s charm, coiffure and orthodonture were indeed impressive, I can’t recall another moment in recent political memory where a politician has so badly misjudged a room. You can watch the speech over at NRO [Quicktime link] but I’ll give you the highlights:
He laid out a surprisingly bold plan for dealing with Iran, which was welcome. However, he didn’t say hardly anything let alone lay out what his approach to Iraq might be. This seems extraordinary in it’s shortsightedness. Sez friend and NR E-I-C Rich Lowry: “This doesn’t seem like an oversight. He went out of his way to check off every conservative box—except the one that is politically risky at the moment.” Rich also noted that “The rest of his foreign policy stuff—when he talked about Iran and the broader war—felt very shaky and about an inch deep.” I think Rich is a tad harsh here — his statements on Iran were bolder than any other Presidential candidate I’ve heard and as such, I welcome him driving the debate. Romney was also smart enough to remind the crowd of how he denied Khatami the welcome mat on his visit to Harvard. But yeah, given his lack of foreign policy experience, somehow, some way he needs to figure out how to be much more convincing.
His come-to-Jesus speech about how he realized at 50+ years of age that he really and truly is pro-life, after he repeatedly said he was pro-choice to get elected in a liberal northeastern state is about as convincing as Clay Aiken jammering on about why his girlfriend couldn’t be here. I could repeat Romney’s version of events, but my sometime refuge, The Weekly Standard, has an excellent story about his pro-life conversion this week. Look either Romney is secretly pro-choice and will say anything to be President, or he was pro-life all along and said what he had to to get elected in Massachusetts. I suspect the latter, but neither version of events makes him more appealing as a candidate on a pretty vital issue. I don’t know a way out of that box for him.
His speech was mired in details. Now in some respects this isn’t a bad thing. For better or for worse, Bush is not perceived as a “details” guy and I think that voters want to have a guy that has a command of details given how tricky global and domestic situation is. Unfortunately, Romney swung a bit too far in the other direction — talking about his business career and political experience, he sounded like a complete technocrat at times. Little details like repeatedly referring to his work with “LBOs” — that’s leveraged buy-outs — were annoying in the extreme. And two, he got mired in the details at times when he should have simply been ideological. Describing how he turned around the Massachusetts state budget he got way into details, describing cutting the budget as a matter of cutting in some areas so as to preserve essential services elsewhere. None of that really mattered; the conservatives in attendence I talked to were a) bored and b) didn’t care, as they take a Sir Edmund Hillary approach to Government spending: You cut spending simply because it’s there.
On a somewhat related note, his healthcare program, which again he talked about at length, doesn’t appeal to conservatives who are afraid of creating an even bigger monster than we already have with the current healthcare entitlements. Especially when the President has just introduced a genuinely compelling marketbased reform that’s worth supporting from a conservative point of view. Also, the idea of states increasingly getting into the healthcare game, creating two layers of government to solve problems best left to the market may play well among the general public but not before a conservative audience.
He rambled. He spoke for nearly an hour and concluded with an anecdote that was a real head scratcher. He told the story of how he encountered a flag at a Boy Scout event and was told the story how this particular boy scout troop had sent the flag around the country to be flown above all the state capitols. After that feat was achieved they asked NASA to send the flag into space. NASA declined and then relented at the bequest of their Senator who intervened. The Troop gathered en masse in an auditorium to watch the space shuttle take off with their flag on board on TV. They then watched the Space Shuttle blow up. Finis! Thank you very much, try the veal! Okay, so the flag was recovered intact, and Romney tried to pull the anedote out of a tailspin (too soon?) by rambling someting about astronauts representing American sacrifice. He was visibly moved by the telling of his own tale; everyone else was visibly moved in the direction of the cash bar.
I could go on, but suffice to say that even one of his biggest public champions, the incomparable Kathryn Lopez of National Review, was less than impressed, lamenting “Governor Romney missed an opportunity last night.” The Romney campaign needs to do something big and something soon to win over conservatives; they were clearly planning on him capturing that part of the vote early on. But for now, that hissing is the air being let out of Romney’s balloon.
Continuing on, Andrew Sullivan published a reader letter yesterday that outlines plausible scenario for Jeb to enter the race. I’d link to it, but Sullivan manages to yet again use the word “Christianism” in the context of the post, and well that just makes my liver twitchy, so I’ll post it in full here:
Hear me out on this. They’re still using Rove’s game plan, which is: The religious base is worth 30 percent of the vote. You carry some libertarians and tribal Republicans and you’re home free. Whoever gets the GOP nod MUST have this 30 percent.
So who can do it? McCain? No way. They hate him, and know that, secretly, he hates them. Dobson has already nixed him. Romney? Anyone who thinks a candidate whose core religious text is subtitled ‘Another Gospel of Jesus Christ’ hasn’t been living in this country these last seven years. Rudy? Ditto. Divorced. Gay rights supporter. No way. Brownback? He’ll get most of the 30% but has no crossover appeal. Hagel? The base will never forgive him for his apostasy on the war.
So who can do it? JEB. And they’ll run it just like Clinton did in ‘92. They’ll wait until the last possible moment and then step into the vacuum created by the lack of appeal in the above roster. The Bush name won’t help him, but he’s got a reputation for being level-headed, he’s certainly competent, and he has crossover appeal. Waiting will mitigate talk about “Bush Dynasty” etc.. I’m a Democrat, can’t stand this administration, but have to say that Jeb could be a winner for the GOP in ‘08. He just gave that speech you posted in which he talked about going back to core conservative principles. In short, he distanced himself from his bro.
Jeb Bush in ‘08? Believe it. If Romney can get voters to overlook his Mormonism, than Jeb can certainly get people to overlook his last name.
And on a final note let me just say the NRI event was impressive. If that conference is any indication, National Review remains a pretty vital institution in dertermining the future of American politics.
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