In the Arena

7 Days Till Iowa: Onward and Mittward

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Iowa City, Iowa

Sad to say, Rush was not at his usual radio stand as I drove through the cornfields on Tuesday afternoon, a replacement called Mark Belling was sitting in–but it was curious stuff, all the same. There was a dollop of hair-pulling: Why on earth can’t the Republicans ever come up with a decent conservative? And some grousing about Gingrich and Ron Paul. And then, surprise of surprises in the primo hothouse of wingnuttery, a certain resignation about Mitt Romney. Maybe he was the guy. The callers agreed. A woman from Florida said she wished Mitt had more passion, was willing to kick some butt. (More on that later.) A gentleman from Cleveland said that Romney really was a conservative and that his individual mandate was nothing like the ObamaCare version. (Sorry, gentleman from Cleveland, it is very much the same.) But Limbaughland seemed ready to throw up its fists in frustration and venture Mittward.

I was racing along I-80 in order to get to Davenport in time for Romney’s Triumphant Return to Iowa, after a week of solidifying his lead in New Hampshire. I made it, just barely…and found an empty stage, with teleprompters. Uh-oh.

Actually, I’ve never really gotten this teleprompter tic the Republicans have. Obama uses them relentlessly. So what? He also speaks quite well, thank you, off the cuff. But in Limbaughland–and in Gingrichland (Newt’s been using a teleprompter joke)–the implication is that Obama is somehow too stupid to speak without them. No, Obama’s reason for using them is the same one Romney gave in Davenport: “I wrote down what I’m going to say tonight. I hope you don’t mind. It’s important and I wanted to get it right.”

What followed was a full-fledged preview of the general election campaign, should Romney win the nomination. The speech–a sleek, serviceable one, not very passionately delivered–was all about Obama. None of Romney’s Republican opponents were mentioned. And here’s the basic argument: Obama wants an”entitlement” society, sort of like the European welfare state. Romney wants an “opportunity society,” which would be–what?  Well, less harsh than Ron Paul’s Libertarian society, but more stringent than what we have now.

This is an interesting debate, and I hope it sits at the center of this year’s general election–a case I’ll make in my print column this week. Romney’s framing of the case is smart and speaks to the independent spirit of many Americans, who get claustrophobic when the President says, “We’re in this together,” since they believe it means money coming from their pockets to help people who don’t work as hard as they do. Reality, as we know, is more complicated than that. But most people work too hard to have time for complications.

I don’t think Romney will get much traction on the old-age “entitlement” part of the program: people like Social Security and Medicare, and Obama’s position isn’t that far away from Romney’s–just as Obama’s health care program is only inches away from the plan Romney enacted in Massachusetts. The real question here is: Will Romney go after stuff like food stamps which, after the 2008 collapse, have their largest ever number of recipients? Gingrich is doing so. He calls Obama “the greatest food stamp President in American history.” In these straitened times, the question of generosity toward the poor may prove a hottish button in the coming campaign.

Another section of the speech will also get a good workout if Romney wins the nomination. He accuses Obama of crony capitalism:

President Obama talks about a country where everyone plays by the same rules, but when it comes to his contributors and political cronies, he makes sure the rules don’t apply.  He sticks us with Obamacare and gives his friends a pass with waivers. He stacks the NLRB with labor union stooges. And he has a special gift for his friends in the green energy business–he gives hundreds of millions of dollars to companies like Solyndra, Fisker, and Tesla. Won’t it be nice when free markets guide the economy, rather than a President’s paybacks and boondoggles?

Now we know how an entitlement society works – those in government control the resources and make the rules.  And while the rest of us stand still, they make sure that their friends get ahead.

Romney would deploy this offensively, so that he doesn’t have to play defense all the time on his own form of private-equity, debt-driven, executive-bonus capitalism. He will have to be careful here: Obama could well argue, “You put them on the unemployment line, Mitt–now you want to cut off their food stamps?”

Of course, Romney hasn’t won the nomination yet. No one has voted yet. But there was an upbeat mood among the Romney people at the Davenport speech Tuesday night. They feel they may have weathered Newt, that Ron Paul can be handled, that Rick Santorum may come on a bit, but his support will come out of Gingrich and Paul’s hides. They may be right. It certainly sounded that way in Limbaugh Nation on Tuesday.