One of the things that surprised many people in last night’s Republican presidential debate, apart from the strong performance of Michele Bachmann, was that Mitt Romney is looking pretty strong. It was easy to write him off because of the fact that Obama’s health-care plan is, as Tim Pawlenty put it (but not to Romney’s face), “Obamneycare,” and because Romney refuses to disown his Massachusetts health-care program. (It’s been said about Romney that you can tell which issues he cares about and which ones he doesn’t really care about by which ones he’s willing to flip-flop on. He has completely changed his position on abortion because he doesn’t seem to be that interested in the issue. But he is genuinely proud of his health-care plan and won’t give up on it.) But Romney came off well, and there wasn’t a sense that the health care thing has made him radioactive. Maybe it’s too early for his opponents to take the gloves off, but it’s also possible that Romney is benefiting from a shift in emphasis: for the last few months, his party has been somewhat less interested in repealing Obamacare and somewhat more interested in arguing for Medicare privatization. Not that they will stop trying to repeal the health care law. But if Romney promises to support repeal at the federal level, and promises to support some form of Medicare privatization, he may be all right.
The other thing that indicates that Romney has a good chance of being President of the United States: he’s one of the few candidates who has bothered to notice that the biggest issue – and Obama’s biggest vulnerability – is unemployment. If Obama loses, and I have trouble seeing how he wins if the unemployment rate doesn’t drop drastically, it’ll be largely because of the (accurate) perception that his administration de-emphasized the jobs issue and spent too much time on things most people don’t care about, like deficits. (The deficit obsession even extended to the health care law, which delayed implementation – and therefore delayed bringing benefits that most people would actually enjoy – so it could appear deficit-neutral.) Most Republicans have focused on their own obsessions, usually high-end tax rates. But Romney has been hitting the “where are the jobs?” message pretty hard, and the ad he released yesterday is a very effective one because it plays on the perception that Obama is out of touch with the most important issue:
Romney is no populist, but then nobody in the race is a populist. But he seems to have noticed that there’s an opening for a candidate with a simple, effective strategy: run on the issue normal people care about more than Washington insiders do. Even if he has no plan to make things better, just acknowledging the importance of the employment issue gives him a leg up over the other candidates and, I think, over Obama.