Responses to my recent column titled “Hold My Nose and Vote for Romney?” showed that Mitt Romney faces a challenge in convincing conservatives to support his bid for the presidency. Most readers agreed with my assessment that there are three good reasons to hold one’s nose and vote for Romney: 1) he is not Obama, 2) he is not Obama, and 3) he is not Obama. Nonetheless, frustrated by the Republican establishment’s propensity to choose milquetoast moderates as candidates for high office, a disturbing number of readers still expressed a reluctance to vote for Romney. As they did with John McCain, many conservatives plan to sit out the presidential election of 2012, and the argument that doing so is the same as voting for Obama does not appear to move them.
Therefore, it falls to Mitt Romney to convince reluctant conservatives to change their minds and support his campaign. However, the Romney we have observed in the primary debates and on the campaign trail thus far will change few conservative minds. If Romney hopes to gain full support from the right, he is going to have to discard his moderate political views, stop trying to justify his liberal policies as governor of Massachusetts, and fess up to having made some serious errors in the past—errors he repents of and is now determined to correct. In short, if Mitt Romney hopes to win the support of the right as well as moderates, independents, and a few rational Democrats, he is going to have to follow the example Ronald Reagan’s campaign against Jimmy Carter provides.
Ronald Reagan ran against a liberal incumbent president who—like Barack Obama— pretended to be a moderate during the general election, who—like Barack Obama—helped create the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, who—like Barack Obama— looked on helplessly as gasoline prices soared, and who—like Barack Obama—allowed America’s prestige in the world to be seriously damaged. As the incumbent, Jimmy Carter’s ineptitude and weak-kneed leadership set the stage for the Reagan revolution. Like Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama has set the stage for a conservative revolution, the kind that happens at the ballot box.
With the table set for him, did Ronald Reagan obey conventional political wisdom that says Republican candidates should move toward the center in general elections? Not even close. As he would do so often throughout his presidency, Reagan ignored conventional political wisdom. Instead, he stood up to the moderate Republican establishment and went his own way. Reagan did not worry about turning off political moderates or pushing independents into the Democrat’s camp. Rather, he adopted a platform of strength, character, and resolve, and let the chips fall where they would. The planks in the Reagan platform were limited government, low taxation, free-market economics, individual liberty, personal responsibility, military preparedness, and traditional American values. In adopting a strong, no-apologies, pro-America platform, Reagan succeeded in turning not just independents but Democrats into Republicans.
This is the example Mitt Romney should follow if he hopes to convince conservatives to turn out in November. He needs to do what Reagan did: look the American people in the eye and tell them the truth while giving them a better vision for America’s future. Mushy politically-expedient platitudes will not get the job done against an incumbent president who will use such nefarious tactics as pandering to the poor through class envy. Nor will a milquetoast message impress reluctant conservatives. Romney must show that he stands for something larger than just winning the presidential election and the group he needs to convince is conservatives, not independents and moderates.