Mitt Romney isn’t quite ready to formalize his bid for the Republican nomination, even if his wife gave him the green light when she introduced Romney Friday morning at CPAC. But it’s clear that Romney is in. The theme of his speech was “Believe in America,” and the content was similarly squishy: thick with platitudes, light on policy specificity. It offered a grand tour of conservatism’s grievances with President Obama, who Romney cast as a serial apologist who kowtows to foreign enemies, failed to attack the roots of the economic crisis and doesn’t share the belief in American greatness. The message was unmistakable: Barack Obama does not share your values. The implied corollary: I do.
The first part is an easy sell to the CPAC attendees. The second half is tougher. To win the GOP nod, Romney must convince the base that a former blue-state governor who crafted a health-care plan opponents will hang from his neck is a true believer. If Romney can’t shake suspicions that he’s a shape-shifter masquerading as a fiscal and social conservative, the hunks of red meat he chucks around will just come off as craven pandering. Judging by the reaction of the crowd–which clucked at his zingers, offered a few standing O’s and applauded at all the right moments–he’s got their attention and respect. Trust may be another matter.
Romney’s second task is casting himself as the competent candidate in an unsettled field, and a proven manager ready to tackle the challenges posed by a dangerous world. Republicans are salivating for a candidate with incontrovertible bona fides, but above all they want a winner. Reversing the economic and geopolitical damage Romney laid at Obama’s feet — the “Misery Index” of joblessness, foreclosures and our falling international status — “is going to take more than new rhetoric,” Romney said. “It’s going to take a new president.”
On the negative side of the ledger, the would-be candidate’s speech was rushed and quippy; his caricature of Obama as an effete Europhile clashed with the gravitas and maturity he’d want to project before a less partisan audience. And “Believe in America” is an unimaginative bit of sloganeering, though Obama’s “Win the Future” is certainly no better. But the theme’s sunniness invokes Reagan’s, which is always a plus in conservative circles. It underlines the juxtaposition Romney set up: that the U.S. needs a strong president who will “never apologize for America” after four years of the “weak,” arugula-noshing guy who brought the country to the brink and failed to stanch historic job losses.
Romney spent little time on his own background, and he only flicked at the spending-cut fights that have been dominating the discussion at CPAC. That may have been smart. Even in an inchoate Republican field, it’s clear attacking Obama will be the price of admission. Having savaged the president to the crowd’s satisfaction, Romney can take up the harder task: selling himself.