Well, this is embarrassing. Mere weeks into the thrill-deprived 2012 election season and I am already changing my prediction. There were more than a few of us in Washington who believed that Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty would eventually triumph in the Republican primaries under the slogan, "He Annoys You The Least." But the mild-mannered Minnesotan was so easily overshadowed by Herman Cain and Rick Santorum in last week's far too early GOP debate that he really ought to drop out just on principle. With the latest fundraising news, and yet another round in the Newt Gingrich gaffe-o-lympics, it looks like the GOP is going to come up Romney after all. All this of course is wonderful news for the Obama White House. There is no more ideal candidate for the President to run against than Governor Rombot himself.
For a commander-in-chief who often seems to approach his presidency as if he were guest lecturing Con Law 201 at the University of Chicago, Obama almost looks like a regular guy alongside the former Massachusetts governor—he of the perfect family, perfect teeth, and perfect hair. Romney undoubtedly is a smart, well-meaning person, but he still comes off as the candidate who refuses to blow his nose until it has been sketched out days earlier with overpaid consultants, put before three separate focus groups, and only tended to by tissue paper made in Iowa or New Hampshire. Last week the former governor, in a masterful attempt to prove he is not in fact the candidate of buzz words and talking points, delivered a PowerPoint presentation on health care to a helpless audience at the University of Michigan—a PowerPoint, it was revealed, that he was personally editing. At the college where JFK once launched the Peace Corps, listening to "Profiles in PowerPoint" was for students the equivalent of watching their parents' vacation slides. It didn't help matters any that Romney's message was so craven—I can't disavow my plan completely or I'll look like a flip flopper but can't praise it too strongly or I'll look like Obama—that one could almost hear the gears clanging in his head as he spoke. Such blatant maneuvering led to hilarious headlines: " Mitt Romney: I Will Never Impose My Awesome Massachusetts Law On The Nation."
Team Obama has to be lighting candles every day for a gift like this. Romney will prove so predictable, so calculated, so filled with everything money can buy but ideas that the White House can already plot out his every utterance—all the way from his love of ethanol in Iowa to his gauzy Reagan-invoking ads in New Hampshire to his selection of Huckabee as a running mate to his short, gracious concession speech on election night, his hair immobile in the gentle Massachusetts wind.
Team Obama has to be lighting candles every day for a gift like this. Romney will prove so predictable, so calculated, so filled with everything money can buy but ideas that the White House can already plot out his every utterance.
The Romney campaign will be similarly static, based on a single notion that it has never really thought through beyond mimicking a focus group: big government is bad. Obama, at least, appears to appreciate that Americans' views on the Washington bureaucracy are more complex. Like a majority of Americans, Governor Romney opposes Obamacare, even though he once championed a similar law in his home state. But what about the new law's enormously popular ban on denying health insurance coverage for Americans based on preexisting conditions? Does Romney want to repeal that too? Similarly, Romney will reflexively support vague "reforms" to the government's massive entitlement programs. But how will he respond to his party's plans to replace Medicare or Social Security with something that may prove far less popular? What cogent, bold, risk-taking arguments will the governor make? So, too, Romney will call for large cuts in federal spending. But what about cutting money for things Americans like, such as the Defense Department, student loans, the environment, America's highways, or Uncle Floyd's disability payments? Obama will say he stands for making government work while Romney stands for lobbing a wrecking ball into the American dream and telling its citizens "to fend for themselves." Where in the governor's carefully crafted talking points are answers to any of this?
If Obama is really smart—and he may not be—he will even go a step further. Imagine the president standing in front of a padlocked government building and saying that he is putting it up for sale. Or arriving at a federal agency and announcing that he is going to put it out of business. Or conducting an audit of the federal bureaucracy by an outside agency—and then revealing to the American people exactly how their money is spent, or wasted. What if Barack Obama became the first president who actually reduced the size of the federal government? That's a feat even Ronald Reagan couldn't achieve.
In short, President Obama can easily make Romney's poll-tested but unthinking "less government" mantra look heartless and the governor's sunny, nonspecific, cotton candy rhetoric look like, well, a vapid PowerPoint presentation. Romney's army of consultants will have nothing to offer their candidate except gaping mouths. This is what happens when you only play a conservative on TV.
Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.