I previously noted that Romney’s loss can be explained many ways, including an inability to connect with voters. But the primary reason Romney lost is because he lags behind the mood of his party.
The most successful politicians are always ahead of the electorate, but not too far ahead. Churchill, for much of the 1930s, was too far ahead of the British public, until circumstances caught up to his warnings. Reagan was ahead of the establishment when he characterized the Soviet Union as an evil empire. Leading the public into the future, with language that captures public sentiment before that sentiment has even matured, is what separates great political figures from the rest.
Romney’s language lags behind the mood of the country, and more importantly, the mood of Republicans. He has just recently begun to use words and images that reflect the congressional revolution of 2010, when the Tea Party re-popularized limited government.
Notice Romney’s lag from Saturday night’s speech in Columbia, South Carolina. President Obama has been “demonizing success and disparaging conservative values.” This assessment is both vague and late. “Conservative values?” Which? “Disparaging?” Most GOP primary voters suspect Obama doesn’t have “disparagement” on his mind, but destruction instead. What should be a rallying cry for Romney sounds instead like those first clues we detected in 2009 that Obama really wasn’t a centrist.
Worse, in something appropriate in the fall of 2008, Romney said Saturday, “President Obama has no experience running a business or running a state.” But in 2012 he has experience running the federal government. This language reinforces Romney’s fundamentally incorrect assessment that Obama is merely “in over his head.”
Republicans who presume that Obama is primarily incompetent are making a deadly mistake. I’ve appeared on Fox News to warn how dangerous it is to ascribe incompetence to this administration. Romney’s assessment lags behind the perception among Republicans that this is an ideologically driven presidency intent on fundamentally transforming America. After all, Obama plainly says so.
“Our president has divided the nation and engaged in class warfare,” said Romney Saturday night. Most Republicans realized this years ago. Now they seek a general to lead them into a titanic political battle against a president who, they believe, seeks to convert this country into something that was unimaginable a generation ago. They want a general who uses language to inspire them for the fight. And so far, Mitt Romney hasn’t found it.
They want a leader in the fight that does not lag behind them. They want a leader who says the things they believe.
Romney has exactly one week to find the right words, the inspirational language. Even presuming he does, the danger is that Florida Republicans may view it as another politically expedient Romney conversion. The biggest reason Romney lost in South Carolina is that he seems to lag behind the views of his own party. It is far more dangerous to lag behind the public than to be too far in front of it. As Churchill learned, it’s easier for the public to catch up to one articulate and inspirational voice, than for a lagging politician to catch up to the public.