In 2008, Barack Obama was able to turn his primary-night victories, and even a few of his defeats, into operatic gusts of wonderment. Eventually he went too far, slouching toward pomposity: "We are the ones we've been waiting for" was a rhetorical bridge to nowhere. But watching him win was fun. Watching Mitt Romney win is as joyous as arthritis. And like Obama, Romney now has his own election-night brand: the bummer victory. He has had nights of sheer triumph, as in Florida. But more often, it's been like Super Tuesday: a handful of expected wins, on home turf like New England and the Mormon West; a handful of dreadful losses, in places like moderate-conservative Tennessee; and a signature squeaker, in Ohio, following similar performances in Iowa and Michigan.
The Republicans are tearing out their hair over this, a form of introspection usually unknown to the daddy party. In the days before Super Tuesday, the magisterial voice of the right, George Will, opined that it might be better for Republicans to forget about the presidency this time around and concentrate on winning Congress. Better economic news has, for the moment, made President Obama more plausible. Romney's screechy pandering to the Israel lobby at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention contrasted poorly with the President's strong, restrained speech. And after a decade of unwarranted warfare, Obama's scolding of Romney and the other candidates for "popping off" about war with Iran was both politic and presidential.
But that doesn't mean this campaign is over. The general election hasn't even begun, and that's when a great swath of the voting public finally tunes in. I can cite chapter and verse of eventual winners who at this point in the process seemed like dead meat--Bush in 1988, Clinton in 1992 and, yes, Reagan in 1980. But Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were terrific politicians, and George H.W. Bush had the luck to run against Michael Dukakis. Is there an argument to be made for Romney's winning the presidency, assuming he root-canals his way to the Republican nomination? Of course there is. The most obvious path to victory is that events in the world conspire against Obama. The economy tanks, or stalls. There is, God forbid, a terrorist attack, with Obama perceived to be asleep at the switch. His Administration suffers a major scandal. But the real question is whether Romney can do anything himself to improve his chances. Does he have a real argument to make against Obama that will sway enough independent voters to win the election?
I used to think he did. It was an economic-management argument. But this is where the primaries have really forced Romney into a corner. He was running a fiscally responsible campaign until he offered a foolish 20% supply-side tax cut a few weeks ago, which places him firmly on the side of bleeding the treasury to aggrandize the wealthy. His strong stand against illegal immigration has alienated Hispanic voters. His opposition to the auto bailout has hurt him in crucial heartland states like Michigan and Ohio. His unrelenting negative ads haven't helped his reputation either.