Romney’s New New Thing

His Mr. Fix-It pitch—do we have a winner?

Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Mitt Romney

I don’t know whether I watched Romney 4.0 or Romney 1.0 at the University of South Carolina Wednesday night. He was standing in front of a big sign that said “Washington Is Broken,” which is a new addition to his road show. Also newish is his almost total emphasis on using his business skills to fix the federal government. At the same time, this pitch is also not that different from the one he was running on a year ago, before he started giving synthetic presentations that felt more like he was reading a Conservative Union Mad Lib.

The new heavy emphasis looks like it’s working. It helped Romney take Michigan, and on the stump it’s animating audiences. This approach allows Romney to tell stories about his successful days as a management consultant and running the Olympics, which he clearly loves telling. He looks like he believes what he’s saying, and the audience responds more robustly than at any Romney event I’ve been to before. Every time he talks about the failures of Washington, they cheer more loudly. This kind of reaction seemed like a near impossibility before Romney got here yesterday. He was about a half-hour late, and staffers  tried to get several chants going only to have them die out almost immediately. They kept trying—”Let’s Go, Mitt!”—but the span of time between the start of the cheer and its end kept getting shorter.

The Mr. Fix-It strategy has the chance of working for Romney politically for three reasons. He’s giving his best riff as the economy becomes ever-more important to voters. He sounds authentic doing it, which addresses one of his campaign’s biggest problems. And finally, since the primary race is now going national—as candidates head to the 21 states up for grabs on Feb. 5— Romney is going after voters who haven’t been following the race as closely as those who live in the states that voted early. The Super Tuesday audience is less likely to see his new message as the latest in a series of zigzags than as Romney’s main pitch.

That’s not to say the pitch is not without its problems, for those who want to pick at it. First, it’s a little head-snapping to hear Romney talk with passion and at length about fighting Washington special interests and doling out middle-class tax cuts. Politicians “didn’t stand up for us. They haven’t done that job,” he says. Why? Because of “lobbyists, the people who are hanging around … the special interests.” If you closed your eyes and channeled an emotional Southern accent, you could very well think you were hearing John Edwards. (Also, er, wasn’t his dad a lobbyist?)

The list of Washington failures works very well as political theater. Romney names a problem Washington hasn’t fixed, and the audience chants back “they haven’t done it” or some variation thereof. But when you listen to the list—fix the border, fix Social Security, lower the tax burden on the middle class, and fix the education system—you realize that Romney has just listed the Bush agenda. There are the items that passed (tax cuts and No Child Left Behind) and the huge gambits that failed (immigration reform and Social Security private accounts). Romney has been walloping Mike Huckabee for attacking Bush, but his current attack on Washington is also, in part, an attack on the Bush record. Romney says he’s not singling out the president or the Democrats in Washington when he makes his attacks, but that makes no sense because you cannot attack a city. The politicians are the ones who have failed.

Finally, we come to Romney’s talk about protecting every job. This line worked for him in Michigan, with its highest-in-the-country unemployment rate. McCain told voters some of their jobs weren’t coming back and lost; now he’s taking that candid but unappealing message to South Carolina in telling voters that some of the state’s textile jobs aren’t coming back, either. People should look to the job sectors that are growing, says McCain. True, but not so comforting.

To support his job-protection pledge, Romney tells a story from his business years about an early investment he made in Staples. It’s a story about the glory of American innovation and how smart Romney was to spot an idea that could grow into a national big-box store. The small problem, though, is that the story directly conflicts with his current role as American job protector. Staples was a great concept that created jobs and probably made it easier for lots of people to buy office supplies—even if you discount for (in my experience and opinion) the company’s horrible customer service. But small office-supply businesses disappeared as Staples grew. Those jobs aren’t coming back, nor is the personal attention that those stores offered. The thousands of workers at now-defunct CompUSA who lost their jobs because people started buying computers at Staples also aren’t going to get their jobs back. This is the tough reality of American innovation. But Romney doesn’t want to celebrate or even admit to that, a la McCain (whom he never mentioned by name in Columbia). Instead Romney denies the reality of churning job loss altogether.

The good news for Romney is that voters probably aren’t going to call him on any of these inconsistencies. Any rivals who want to challenge him on the dynamism of the American job market risks getting into a spat with him on his strongest turf. It would be like debating theology with Mike Huckabee. Which is why of all the messages Romney has tried out, this is the one he’s likely to keep preaching.