Rein­vent­ing Rom­ney

Po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­date adopts anti-poverty mes­sage

SundayXtra - - WORLD -

In the in­ter­ven­ing days, as Rom­ney made rounds of tele­phone calls to take sound­ings, the ma­chin­ery around him be­gan to punch out talk­ing points that were de­signed to push back against the doubters and the disgruntled within the party who be­lieve he blew a per­fectly good chance to win the White House against U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in the 2012 elec­tion and were skep­ti­cal about another cam­paign.

But the haste and seem­ingly hap­haz­ard na­ture of the roll­out served only to gen­er­ate fur­ther back­lash in var­i­ous cor­ners of the party. Rom­ney’s clos­est ad­vis­ers said such talk was ex­pected and would not de­ter Rom­ney. But oth­ers were com­plain­ing pri­vately there was too much talk about the process of run­ning and not enough about the sub­stan­tive ra­tio­nale and a de­scrip­tion of what would be dif­fer­ent this time.

Rom­ney stayed silent un­til Fri­day night. When he fi­nally spoke, he sounded like a man hop­ing to ban­ish the ghosts of 2012 and start anew, not as the can­di­date car­i­ca­tured by his op­po­nents last time as an out- of-touch plu­to­crat, but as a man of com­pas­sion and faith who has lived a life of quiet aid and coun­sel to peo­ple in need.

The Mor­mon who re­sisted talk­ing about his re­li­gion in his two pre­vi­ous pres­i­den­tial bids in­voked it Fri­day night in the space of a 15-minute speech. And to those who might ques­tion this, he pointed to his wife, Ann, who stood at his side as she has through­out his long po­lit­i­cal quest, say­ing she could vouch for those cre­den­tials.

“She knows my heart in a way that few peo­ple do,” he said. “She’s seen me not just as a business guy and a po­lit­i­cal guy, but for over 10 years, as you know, I served as a pas­tor for a con­gre­ga­tion and for groups of con­gre­ga­tions... She’s seen me work with folks that are look­ing for bet­ter work and jobs and pro­vid­ing care for the sick and the el­derly. She knows where my heart is.”

Be­fore he said that, Rom­ney laid out what he said could be a win­ning con­ser­va­tive mes­sage in 2016, built on three pil­lars: se­cu­rity and safety in the face of for­eign ter­ror­ist threats, op­por­tu­nity for all Americans re­gard­less of up­bring­ing and a fo­cus on find­ing ways to lift peo­ple out of poverty.

His for­eign pol­icy rhetoric seemed lit­tle changed from 2012, though this time he went after for­mer sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, viewed as the like­li­est Demo­cratic nom­i­nee in 2016, as much as Obama for weak­ness and mis­man­age­ment. Cit­ing threats across the globe to U.S. se­cu­rity, Rom­ney said, “The re­sults of the Hil­lary Clin­ton-Barack Obama for­eign pol­icy have been dev­as­tat­ing, and you know that. Ter­ror­ism is not on the run.”

The fo­cus on poverty and a strug­gling mid­dle class was a shift, though not unique in the po­lit­i­cal de­bate of 2015. From Democrats such as Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts to Repub­li­cans such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wis­con­sin — Rom­ney’s 2012 vice-pres­i­den­tial run­ning mate — or Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Florida, is­sues of poverty, wage stag­na­tion, in­come in­equal­ity and so­cial mo­bil­ity have moved to the top of the do­mes­tic and eco­nomic agen­das. More re­cently, for­mer Florida gov­er­nor and po­ten­tial 2016 GOP can­di­date Jeb Bush has seized on the same themes.

Rom­ney sought to cast par­tic­u­lar blame on the pres­i­dent for promis­ing but fail­ing to make progress in deal­ing with th­ese prob­lems. “Un­der Pres­i­dent Obama,” he said, “the rich have got­ten richer, in­come in­equal­ity has got­ten worse, and there are more peo­ple in poverty than ever be­fore. Un­der this pres­i­dent, his poli­cies have not worked. Their lib­eral poli­cies are good ev­ery four years for a cam­paign, but they don’t get the job done.”

Rom­ney knows how well those “lib­eral poli­cies” worked for Obama in the 2012 cam­paign. The pres­i­dent framed the elec­tion not as a ref­er­en­dum on his eco­nomic record but as a test of which can­di­date mid­dle-class vot­ers trusted more with their fu­tures, spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars seek­ing to dis­qual­ify Rom­ney. Among vot­ers who said the most im­por­tant at­tribute in their vote in 2012 was a can­di­date “who cares about peo­ple like me,” Obama won them by 81 per cent to 18 per cent.

In 2012, Rom­ney of­ten talked about the econ­omy from the per­spec­tive of en­trepreneurs and business own­ers, small and large, rather than work­ers or work­ing fam­i­lies. On Fri­day night, he fo­cused his sights on those who are strug­gling, say­ing it is “a hu­man tragedy” mid­dle-class Americans do not be­lieve that the lives of their chil­dren will be bet­ter than their own. “Peo­ple want to see ris­ing wages and they de­serve them,” he said.

Most strik­ing was Rom­ney’s call to “fi­nally end the scourge of poverty in this great land.” He noted it was 50 years ago then-pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son de­clared a war on poverty. “His heart was in the right place, but his poli­cies didn’t work,” he said.

Rom­ney ar­gued con­ser­va­tives must show their poli­cies can do what lib­eral poli­cies have not. “We’re an abun­dant na­tion,” he said. “We have the re­sources and the ca­pac­ity — in­tel­lec­tu­ally, men­tally, fi­nan­cially — to lift peo­ple out of poverty.”

Rom­ney’s re­marks on Fri­day will im­me­di­ately give rise to charges he has had a change of heart out of po­lit­i­cal con­ve­nience or ne­ces­sity, some­thing that dogged him in his first cam­paign and con­strained him in his sec­ond.

Was the Rom­ney seen briefly Fri­day the true de­scen­dant of his fa­ther, George, who wore his pas­sions about civil rights and or­di­nary Americans on his sleeves, and the com­pas­sion­ate leader of his re­li­gious or­der? Or was this sim­ply another cal­cu­lated po­lit­i­cal shift, one more sharp turn in a po­lit­i­cal life? Those who know him well would ar­gue that what peo­ple heard on Fri­day was a glimpse of the true Rom­ney, who was rarely seen in the 2012 cam­paign.

Some of Rom­ney’s most in­ti­mate coun­sel­lors, in­clud­ing his wife, Ann, and son, Tagg, ar­gued un­suc­cess­fully last time for a cam­paign built more di­rectly around the goal of show­ing off the in­ner Mitt. The only time there was any tes­ti­mony about Rom­ney’s com­pas­sion­ate works came at the na­tional con­ven­tion from mem­bers of his church.

Ab­sent more of that, he was done in by com­ments like, “I like to fire peo­ple,” and, “I’m not con­cerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there.” Th­ese words were taken out of con­text, which helped feed a neg­a­tive nar­ra­tive the Democrats were de­ter­mined to sell. It took a post-elec­tion doc­u­men­tary called Mitt to project a warmer, more hu­man side of the man.

What Rom­ney did on Fri­day, one ad­viser said, was ex­actly what was needed as he makes a fi­nal decision about run­ning. He said Rom­ney had put enough sub­stan­tive meat on the bones of his newly stated pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions to buy more time to make a con­sid­ered decision about run­ning again.

Hav­ing done so, how­ever, Rom­ney will hear calls to out­line the con­ser­va­tive poli­cies that would turn that vi­sion into re­al­ity, to show he has some­thing truly new to say. He will face even more pres­sure to show the way he has framed his pos­si­ble can­di­dacy is a gen­uine rep­re­sen­ta­tion of both his heart and his head.

In ap­pear­ances on con­sec­u­tive Fri­days, Rom­ney has man­aged twice to sur­prise the po­lit­i­cal world. If he runs, he must per­suade Repub­li­cans he can suc­cess­fully carry that vi­sion into a gen­eral elec­tion and not leave them dis­ap­pointed once again.

CHARLES KRUPA / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

Repub­li­can Mitt Rom­ney is speak­ing like a per­son who has learned from the mis­steps that cost him in the last cam­paign.

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