Has Rick Perry done Mitt Romney a favor?
Those who make book in this town wouldn’t say so. The former Massachusetts governor’s status as the titular front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination has been undone by the brash Texas governor.
But Perry’s sudden surge to the top of polls has brought an unexpected gift to his rival: It has, by unburdening Romney of his head-of-the-pack status, released him from the tedious and timid campaign he was running. Relieved of the high expectations, Romney is free to take sides unapologetically in a battle over whether the Republican Party will reclaim its mainstream traditions or remain a protest movement.
The first signs are encouraging. As Romney rolled out his economic plan in North Las Vegas on Tuesday, he solidly rejected the slash-and-burn economics of the Tea Party in favor of a Chamber of Commerce wish list.
First, he named an economic team led by the very picture of the establishment: two former lawmakers who have become Washington fixtures and two former Bush administration economists, one the dean of Columbia Business School and the other a Harvard economist who praises the influence of John Maynard Keynes — the bete noire of the Tea Party.
Romney’s programs — a 59-point plan encased in a 160-page booklet of the sort he once produced as a management consultant — are similarly old school: Cut corporate taxes, encourage energy development and free-trade agreements, and admit more skilled foreign workers.
His proposed upfront spending cuts? All of $20 billion — a pittance by Tea Party standards. He would cap federal spending at a level well above those that conservatives demanded and he would keep in place taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains for the wealthy.
The usually awkward Romney seemed in his element as he delivered his speech, even if he was wearing a yacht-club blue blazer and tan gabardines on the floor of a truck repair shop. He used only a page of handwritten notes for his half-hour talk, and he eschewed anti-government rhetoric in favor of boardroom competence.
“Look, this is a business plan for the American economy,” he said. “If we want to create jobs, we’ve got to have the best business plan in the world.”
This hardly makes Romney a liberal, or even the moderate he once was. As he again defended his curious formulation that “corporations are people,” he sounded almost plutocratic. But it at least shows that the man who had been a frightened front-runner now is willing to state more boldly what his candidacy is about: the corporate establishment’s answer to Perry’s angry populism. Call it the soft courage of low expectations.
Twice over the weekend, Romney took his campaign to the hostile terrain of the Tea Party, but, to his credit, he didn’t try to flatter his audience. At Sen. Jim DeMint’s gathering in South Carolina, he defended the need for new financial regulations after the economic collapse. He resisted the idea of a federal right-to-work law. He told the Tea Partyers that he would not defy the Supreme Court on abortion and he vigorously defended “Romneycare.”
The day before, a similar performance at a gathering of the Tea Party Express in New Hampshire earned Romney a valuable headline — “Mitt Romney doesn’t pander to New Hampshire tea partiers” — atop Ben Smith’s Politico article.
Romney originally hoped he could tiptoe to the nomination while his rivals carved each other up. But the failure of this terminally cautious strategy could be a blessing.
Until now, Romney’s message was that he really, really wanted to be president. Now, his message is more compelling: Will Republicans choose the cool corporatism of Romney or a guy who talks about secession and treason? Romney’s PowerPoint presentations — or a guy who likens gay people to alcoholics?
The two candidates’ approaches to economics are illustrative. Perry has no plan, other than this bit of bluster he produced last week: “No. 1 is don’t spend all the money — you can figure out what that means. You won’t have stimulus programs under a Perry presidency.”
Romney, by contrast, offers a painful level of detail, such as action item 39, “utilize long-term, apolitical funding mechanisms like ARPA-E for basic research.”
“This is the result of practical work,” Romney told his supporters at the truck repair facility. “It’s a practical plan.”
Practical! The very word is anathema to the Tea Party.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.