January 30, 2012        A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2008

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning!"
--Colonel Kilgore, Apocalypse Now

There's an old expression, sometimes misused: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

In the case of the recent campaign evolution of Mitt Romney, this adage is certainly true. Starting last fall the former Massachusetts governor and presumed GOP front-runner began facing challenges that brought him out of his sleepwalking phase and forced him into his combat gear. He realized-for the second time in four more-or-less continuous years of running for President-that he could lose this thing...again.

At the end of last summer Romney faced off against a series of rivals, any one of which seemed, in those heady, media-saturated moments, capable of rousting the former Olympic CEO from his horse. Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain--each had their shining moment where it seemed, briefly, that Romney and his armor would crash to the ground. But each time Romney remained relevant, upright, and on his horse.

Michelle Bachmann's baggage was opened and examined and some horrors unleashed; Rick Perry stumbled and stammered and even managed to make Dan Quayle sound like John Houseman; Herman Cain was revealed to be a possible serial philanderer, and a heavyweight contender for the pejorative moniker a once popular Democratic president received by way of The American Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell: The Groper-in-Chief.

The Rick Perry versus Mitt Romney match-up became such wildly powerful unscripted reality-show entertainment that it actually drove up the ratings for televised Republican debates on all the networks which participated. When, in the last 40 years or so, have GOP debates actually made national politics more popular?

Each of Romney's challengers were once the darlings of the vaguely defined anti-Romney forces, that subset of the GOP which includes Tea Partiers, evangelical Republicans, Christian conservatives, ideological purists, social conservatives, the rabidly anti-Obama, the culturally anti-establishment and the occasionally politically incorrect.

So now, in what may be the final few weeks of a bruising elimination contest (or just the start of a long, hot spring), has Romney finally met his match in Newt Gingrich? Or is Gingrich merely the final challenge to overcome, the last of the antagonists on his protracted Homerian journey?

The conventional view of this unfolding drama has been that Republicans are savaging themselves with machetes and chainsaws, inflicting deep injuries that will not be fully healed by the time the convention ends and the Democratic advertising machine begins to hit full stride. In this view, which I have discussed in previous installments of Road Show, the GOP will tear itself apart with the negatives ads and the unhinged nature of the endless debates. The Romney versus Gingrich battle in Florida is scorched-earth warfare, a winner-take-all fight which could bring Republicans certain defeat in November.

However, a longer view of modern Presidential election history does not entirely support this theory, especially for the Republican Party.

In 1976 Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the nomination. What started as a nuisance for Ford soon became a protracted and bruising fight. Reagan and Ford battled nearly to the door of the convention that summer. Ford eventually prevailed, along the way dumping his vice-president--Nelson Rockefeller--and picking Bob Dole as his new running mate. After Ford's coronation, Reagan was cordial but unenthusiastic, famously sitting on his hands that fall.

Despite what was widely viewed as a setback, Ford may have become stronger as a direct result of the challenge he faced from Reagan. After a series of primary losses in several key states, Ford was awakened from an incumbent's slumber. Flushed out of his Oval Office comfort zone, Ford found himself in the thick of the action and learned the importance of a more direct appeal to voters.

Further, Ford's decision to oust Rockefeller in favor of Dole was a clear response to the changing nature of his party (and the voting patterns in general), and goading from conservatives and supporters of Reagan, nudging Ford to the right. Ford's eventual triumph over his party rival, though harrowing, helped to bolster his image as a tenacious fighter and winner.

Though the Ford-Dole ticket emerged from the GOP convention with a 29.5 point deficit in most polls, the President was able to slowly, systematically close the gap with Jimmy Carter. Carter would prevail in the general election, but not before Ford had moved up to within a few points of Carter and making it a relatively close call in the Electoral College.

Ironically, Reagan himself would be forced out of his campaign doldrums in the run-up to the election of 1980, when the former California governor faced a series of challengers, as well as questions about his age and stamina. Reagan first had to defend his role as conservative-in-chief as much younger candidates, such as Phillip Crane of Illinois, sought to appropriate the leadership of the Republican right. John Connally, the former Texas governor, also challenged the assumption that Reagan was the de facto nominee.

Ultimately Reagan's toughest fight in the primaries and caucuses would be with George H.W. Bush, a career public servant with deep establishment credentials and a powerful following among the traditional GOP elite. After a bruising set of contests Reagan would prevail, and his long fight re-established his credibility among most Republicans, and, at least to some voters, showed Reagan to be an energized candidate and capable leader.

Even recent history has shown us that warring candidates can eventually embrace and even become political partners. Four years ago presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton fought bitterly with upstart Barack Obama. Their policy and legislative differences were small, but their cultural and social positions within their fractured party seemed to split the Democrats into two family factions, revealing a deep division dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As the campaign wore on--through the early states and past Super Tuesday--there was no apparent victory in sight for either candidate. Party regulars feuded daily, savaging each other over the issues of electability and inheritance. Even the later primary and caucus states mattered as the contest dragged on into early summer. Ultimately, by July, Obama and Clinton ended the feuding.

The popularly held notion that the damage would be too great to overcome turned out to be nonsense. Obama was able to quickly build a bridge back to his opponents within the party, eventually forging a partnership across the cultural and social divide. But more importantly, his long struggle with Clinton had enhanced his strength, not depleted it.

Further, the increased media coverage and elevated voter participation helped energize the party as a whole. Voter registration reached new levels, especially for the Democrats. And Obama's fundraising set new records month after month. It can be fairly argued that his titanic struggle with Hillary Clinton had drawn all these elements together, eventually enhancing his strength and stamina, as well as burnishing his reputation as a leader cool under adversity.

Of course I have chosen these examples carefully to support the theory that adversity elicits strength. History gives us plenty of contemporary cases in which the skewed ideology, or the bitterness or negativity of a primary season inflicts mortal injury to the candidate or the party. Jimmy Carter was not made into a stronger candidate for re-election because of the formidable challenges he faced from Ted Kennedy or Jerry Brown. Michael Dukakis, likewise, did not enter the general election season with an enhanced skill set after a bruising fight for his nomination in 1988.

So the question becomes this: has Romney's long-distance, endurance battle with his GOP rivals made him worse for the wear? Or has he improved over time, emerging from his sluggishness and listlessness to become the energized, battle-hardened candidate that Republicans yearn for? Will Romney continue to gain real and perceived strength if Gingrich continues to forcefully challenge Romney in upcoming primaries?

Watching recordings of some of the early GOP debates I see a Romney who seemed asleep at the wheel--a plastic, robotic candidate with little enthusiasm and even less passion. Even Romney's allies and supporters--then, and now--agree that his chief weakness is his inability to connect with voters.

His missteps, infrequent though they are, often come at the expense of Republicans and unaligned voters on the grass-roots side of the divide, and these are the sort of voters not easily amused by challenging another candidate to a ten thousand dollar wager. Even after four years of campaigning for President his performance on the stump and in debates has barely improved, that is until the days after South Carolina, when his loss to Gingrich seemed suddenly to put his entire mission in grave danger. Romney enlisted the help of a new debate coach, took on a more assertive stance in the debates in Tampa and Jacksonville, and in the process gave some Floridians a reason to give him a second look.

But has it been enough? Some analysts have pointed out that Mitt Romney occupies a footprint on the political landscape remarkable in its similarity to that of George Herbert Walker Bush. Like the contemporary Romney, the first George Bush was regarded with suspicion by movement conservatives in the primary season of 1980. The skepticism stemmed from various sources, but at the core was a short list of grievances: a family and social world rooted deeply in wealth and prestige; a resume, though impressive for its service, which nevertheless seemed thin for its lack of political combat; and a penchant for compromise on issues at the core of both fiscal and social conservatism.

Bush was seen as a product of Andover and Yale and elite, genteel society, meticulously groomed for a career of service in the hallowed halls of power positions. His record, which included being ambassador to China and director of the CIA, proved inconsequential or, worse, a shouting point for his detractors on the left and especially the right. Most importantly, he was not seen as the sort of street-savvy brawler movement conservatives were seeking as the 1970s gave way to the start of the 80s, and at a time when the nation's political winds were shifting to the right. Bush was perceived as thin-skinned, brittle, and slightly aloof--and schooling in noblesse oblige which made it difficult for him to pull a knife on an opponent when it was politically necessary.

Similarly, Mitt Romney seemed unable to respond in the November and December 2011 debates when the attacks and broadsides become increasingly personal. After the demise of Rick Perry, Gingrich proved especially willing to throw the sharpest punches--especially in South Carolina. Gingrich taunted Romney over Bain and taxes and bank accounts, and this must have seemed an out-of-bounds affront to Romney: it rendered him unable to defend himself for a record of capitalist achievement which had only weeks before been a source of pride for the former Bay State Governor.

Later, Romney would even verbalize the paradox to reporters: he expected such assaults to eventually come from the Obama team and the Democrats; he had not expected his Republican rivals to use this line of attack.

Now, with the Florida vote just 24 hours away, Romney is on a new offensive. Two strong debate performances--one of which included numerous well-targeted left hooks and rib-breakers to Gingrich--coupled with the extensive use of full-frontal negative ads spread out liberally across multiple TV markets in the Sunshine State, have elevated Romney back, if only briefly, to front-runner status. Polls seem to indicate that Florida voters approve of the newly repackaged, leaner, meaner, tougher Romney.

Assuming he wins big in Florida, and assuming he also wins in the upcoming Nevada caucuses on Saturday, Romney may be in a position, finally, to not only prove to the skeptics he can go the distance with Gingrich, but also, as a stronger, more muscular Mitt Romney, that he can step into the larger arena in the fall and take the fight directly to Barack Obama.


Road Show is published each week by Thursday Review publications, copyright 2008