Treading Lightly

Romney at CPAC

02.10.12 5:00 AM ET

Mitt Romney will speak to the Conservative Political Action Committee today. He arrives weakened by Rick Santorum's strong performance Tuesday in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. Politico suggests that Romney will want to "deliver a truly conservative message in person."

My advice to the Romney campaign: be careful.

In 2008, Romney campaigned as a conservative culture warrior. The campaign did not succeed, at least in part because the words sounded so false in his mouth. This cycle, Romney has dialed back the culture war, emphasizing economic issues instead. 

Now there are signs that 2008 Romney is reappearing—and CPAC may be the occasion for another outing.

This tendency is dangerous, for a lot of reasons, but I'll mention here just one: the risk of turning Mitt Romney into the next Walter Mondale.

Running for the Democratic nomination in 1984, Jimmy Carter's former vice president faced a challenge from Gary Hart, who had positioned himself as an "Atari Democrat." (Look it up kids.)

Mondale responded by rounding up the support of every organized interest group in the Democratic coalition. Protectionism for the industrial trade unions, then still important. A nuclear freeze for the peaceniks. More federal dollars for education. More welfare, more regulations, more quotas and set-asides. Etc. Etc. Etc. 

Gary Hart promised "new ideas." Mondale scored a big win in the Democratic debates by mocking the very idea that new ideas were needed. "Where's the beef?" he demanded. (Look that up too.) And what he meant was not "Tell me more about your ideas"—Hart's program  was impressively detailed and was largely borrowed by the Bill Clinton campaign in 1992—but "How will your ideas pay off for the big city/big union coalition?"

By the time Mondale was done, he had won the nomination—and turned himself into a cartoon of everything that seemed obsolete about the New Deal/Great Society version of the Democratic party. He ran in 1984 on a platform for 1948.
This is the fate that threatens Mitt Romney—and not only on social issues. On economic issues too, he's been successfully pushed to satisfy Republican constituencies and orthodoxies in ways that will only hurt him as a general election candidate—and as a president too.

The Republican party believes it has a leadership problem. It really has a followership problem. Mitt Romney is daily being remade into somebody he's not and somebody the country won't accept. You can blame him for yielding. But let's reserve some blame for those pushing.

Thinking about Mondale, I re-read his nomination acceptance speech.

He quoted a line from Harry Truman:

A President ... has to be able to say yes and no, but mostly no.

That's still good advice, and Romney's team should keep it in mind as they address CPAC this weekend.