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How To Judge The Right’s Flight From Romney

Republicans are fleeing Mitt Romney and his comments this week attributing his loss to Barack Obama’s “gifts” for minorities and young people at such a high clip that the United Nations Refugee Agency may need to step in to regulate the flow. First to take issue with Romney’s remarks was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, then New Mexico Gov. Susannah Martinez, and now you can add Chris Christie to the mix. On the conservative punditry side, Romney took a whack today from John Podhoretz, after already being hit by his most loyal fan of all, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, which is a bit like being called to task by your Aunt Sally who sends you $20 every birthday and thinks none of your girlfriends was worthy of your greatness.

What are we to make of this? Are we witnessing a genuine attempt to reckon with the shortcomings of the conservative message being put forward by Romney, or merely an opportunistic rush away from the loser, to keep the stench of defeat from overtaking the party? 

I would answer this question slightly differently now than when it arose the last time conservatives objected to Romney’s infelicitous observations about a whole swath of Obama-supporting America: the release of his secretly-recorded comments on the “47 percent” of non-federal income tax-paying Americans. When conservatives also roundly condemned those comments, the reaction struck me as having the noticeably desperate air of a cover-up. Romney had given vent to a widely shared Republican worldview about the threat of growing dependency, a worldview with strong roots in conservative think thanks (the “47 percent” talk seems to have started with American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks) and in rising star Republicans such as...Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan, who liked to warn of the coming “tipping point” in government dependency, who spoke in Randian terms of “makers and takers,” and who had not long ago even put his own numerical estimate on the proportion of Americans succumbing to cosseted sloth, 30 percent. The problem was that Romney had failed to give that harsh assessment the sheen that conservatives have for years been burnishing it with to make it presentable in public: the sheen of aspiration. Yes, too much of the country is wallowing in the “hammock that ends up lulling able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency dependency,” as Ryan put it, but the Republican platform of safety net cuts and lower taxes would liberate these Americans from the indignity of their lassitude and force them to make something of themselves. It was a cardinal rule passed down from Saint Ronald: Demagoguing welfare queens had to be accompanied by talk of the city on the hill, which was Romney’s 47 percent remarks had failed to do. Rich Lowry’s scolding of Romney was representative:

This line of argument represents a backdoor return to Country Club Republicanism, with the approval of part of the Republican base. Fear of the creation of a class of “takers” can slide into disdain for people who are too poor — or have too many kids or are too old — to pay their damn taxes. For a whiff of how politically unattractive this point of view can be, just look at the Romney fundraising video. There is a separate problem of the growth of government, since roughly half of all households now receive benefits. Unreconstructed entitlements risk tanking the economy. Welfare traps people in dependency. Means-tested benefits like food stamps are creeping up the income scale. And the work ethic is eroding — especially among men without college degrees.An alternative vision, not just a recitation of the president’s economic failures, should be at the center of Romney’s campaign. He needs to make the case for it cogently and consistently, with the fundamental American value of aspiration always in mind. [emphasis mine].

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So: is the reaction to Romney's latest riff simply a similar attempt to shield the Republican id from view? At the risk of sounding gullible, it seems as if it may be something more than that. Yes, some of Romney’s GOP critics are trying merely to make him seem like an outlier, as if the party’s problem in this campaign simply his lamentable inarticulateness: “We need candidates that don’t say dumb things,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. But for others, there seems to be something deeper at work -- a recognition not only that the Republican message needs to be coated with the aspirational sheen that Romney repeatedly neglected to include, but that the party needs to offer a platform that actually helps people who aspire, rather than being so blatantly focused on the needs of the carried-interest contingent. This was the gist of Podhoretz’s critique today

 [Romney] had a plan, he said. But that plan relied mainly on tax cuts, which would have little direct effect on young people yet to be employed or minorities whose incomes tend not to be high enough to enjoy a personal benefit from them. His vision of a better America than Obama’s was one that rewarded success rather than penalized it and gave running room to entrepreneurs to realize the American dream.
But such a vision isn’t actually inclusive. It speaks to those whose energies will likely make them successes no matter what they do—and says little to people who don’t think of life in such dynamic terms. Many people crave security and stability rather than risk-taking, and that doesn’t make them any less American. They are the workers rather than the job creators, and all societies need both.
Romney is right that the Obama vision is too centered on government. But his is too centered on the promotion of business and wealth creation at the expense of everything else.The American dream, as Jindal said, is achieved just as readily by a person who moves from poverty into the middle class as it is by someone who builds a small business. Indeed, that social mobility is probably more reflective of the enduring nature of the American dream than an individual burst of creative success.
The inability to grasp this essential fact was Romney’s great weakness as a candidate.

But the strongest version of this critique came from Ramesh Ponnuru:

The absence of a middle-class message was the biggest failure of the Romney campaign, and it was not its failure alone. Down-ticket Republican candidates weren’t offering anything more — not the established Republicans, not the tea-partiers, not the social conservatives. Conservative activists weren’t demanding that Romney or any of these other Republicans do anything more. Some of them were complaining that Romney wasn’t “taking the fight to Obama”; few of them were urging him to outline a health-care plan that would reassure voters that replacing Obamacare wouldn’t mean taking health insurance away from millions of people.
Romney’s infamous “47 percent” gaffe — by which he characterized voters who do not pay income taxes as freeloaders and sure Democratic voters, which they aren’t — made for a week of bad media coverage and some devastatingly effective Democratic ads. It was not, however, a line of thinking unique to Romney. It was an exaggerated version of a claim that had become party orthodoxy.
A different Republican presidential nominee might not have made exactly that gaffe, or had a financial-industry background that lent itself to attacks on outsourcing. He would almost certainly have had a similar weakness on economic policy, however, and might have had additional weaknesses too. (Romney at least won independent voters, which it’s hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, or Rick Santorum having done.) To put it differently: The problem isn’t so much that Romney was vulnerable to a set of attacks that appear to have discouraged working-class whites from voting; it’s that he didn’t have anything positive with which to counter those attacks.

The test of whether the rejection of Romney’s riff is more than just an expedient distancing from the uncool kid is quite simple: it’s whether Jindal, Martinez and other Republicans start pushing real, workable proposals—gifts!—for the 47 percent or the 30 percent. Heck, even the 99 percent would be a good start.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis