By Niall Stanage - 11/07/11 10:15 AM EST
Mitt Romney could be the Hillary Clinton of 2012.
That may seem an ill portent, given that Clinton lost the nomination. But being Clinton in 2012 might be better than being Clinton in 2008.
Ideologically disparate though the two politicians are, Romney’s candidacy this year shares many of the vulnerabilities exhibited by then-Sen. Clinton four years ago. That is enough to give pause to anyone who sees him as the inevitable Republican nominee.
Clinton entered the campaign having upset the Democratic grassroots with her October 2002 Senate vote authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq.
The same thing can be said of the healthcare reforms Romney enacted while governor of Massachusetts. These, particularly the individual mandate to buy health insurance, foreshadowed President Obama’s 2010 federal reform — something that Obama advisers such as David Axelrod have mischievously emphasized.
Many conservatives question how effective Romney could be against Obama next year on this key issue, given his past position — the same line of concern that liberals voiced about Clinton on Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
There is also a larger problem in both cases. These positions reinforce a pre-existing perception that both Romney and Clinton have malleable principles.
In Clinton’s case, fairly or not, she was tarred by liberal skepticism that attended her triangulation-loving husband. Deeper questions of authenticity arose from public speculation about the nature of her marriage to Bill.
In Romney’s case, the “sins” are more blatant, and more unambiguously his alone. On a range of issues vital to social conservatives — gay rights, abortion, gun control — he adopted a relatively liberal position in Massachusetts only to reverse himself before his first presidential bid.
The lingering suggestion of insincerity, in both cases, magnifies campaign gaffes that might otherwise be insignificant. Romney last month seemed to evade the question of where he stood on an Ohio collective-bargaining controversy before deciding the next day that he did, after all, “fully support” Republican Gov. John Kasich’s position. The conservative blogosphere erupted with expressions of disdain.
The mini-furor was akin to the one provoked by an October 2007 Democratic debate in which Clinton gave an especially tortuous answer on the otherwise-peripheral issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. She spent days afterward batting out the flames.
“The Romney campaign wishes it had as much of an air of inevitability as Hillary did four years ago,” GOP strategist Keith Appell told The Hill. “The healthcare issue is a symptom of a greater concern: He has been on so many sides of so many issues so recently — and it’s all available on video.”
Even those less overtly critical of Romney than Appell find the Clinton example instructive.
“Voters are so skeptical of all things political these days that they put a huge premium on authenticity,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. “Hillary Clinton had an authenticity problem and so does Mitt Romney.”
But, McKinnon added, “Clinton has evolved and her perception now as a competent leader makes up for any other perceived deficiencies. Romney should take notes.”
Romney can also take succor from the significant differences that exist between his position now and that of Clinton four years ago.
Clinton came up against a candidate, in Obama, whose campaigning skills inspired grudging compliments even from his ideological foes. There is nothing similar, at least so far, in this year’s Republican race.
Just as importantly, Obama’s candidacy dovetailed with the national mood in 2008. With the White House having been in possession of one of two families for 20 years — and the possibility of another eight years looming — the public was willing to take a chance on a relatively untested figure promising freshness and change. Clinton’s supposed virtue of experience counted for less than she expected.
Now, though, after four years of economic distress and harsh political battles over major reforms, the competence and maturity that Romney seeks to project — particularly in areas of economic policy and business savvy — might find a large, ready audience.
Finally, Romney loyalists can take heart from one of the most enduring patterns in American politics. The GOP has been less likely than the Democratic Party to throw an establishment candidate overboard in favor of someone who tugs at their heart strings.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics argues that the past half-century furnishes only one example of a real outsider winning the GOP nomination — Sen. Barry Goldwater’s vanquishing of the northeastern establishment forces surrounding New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1964.
“Republicans have been fairly hierarchical in their presidential nominations,” Kondik said. “The last 50 years of Republican nominations argues in favor of Romney, because he lost last time and is a top-line contender back for another shot.”
Others suggest that the current climate, with its distaste for Washington in general and the rise of the Tea Party in particular, might mean that these long-term historical precedents have little bearing.
“This is not a year when being the ‘next guy in line’ helps as much as it has in the past,” Appell said. “In all the polls, the total support among conservative/Tea Party candidates has been far more than that of the GOP establishment candidates. Romney has never closed the sale with these voters, and he needs to hope their support remains divided.”
He needs to hope, in other words, that none of his rivals has the potential to be a Republican Obama.
So far, he seems a strong bet. [But] this time four years ago, so did Clinton.