Mitt Romney is now embracing his inner Etch A Sketch, it seems. With the news that even Newt Gingrich has finally decided that the race is over, Mitt now has no real obstacle along his way to securing his party's nomination for president, or to cement his support among Republicans. No real obstacle except himself, of course.
Conventional political wisdom in America dictates that any candidate "tack" to the extreme wing of his party in order to win the primaries, and then "pivot" back to the center in an effort not to seem too extreme to the independent voters which will wind up deciding the race in November. So, Etch A Sketch jokes aside, this was entirely predictable.
But the first issue Romney chose to show a glimmer of independence from Republican orthodoxy is an interesting one, because the deadline for action is right around the corner. Which means it will serve as a very important test for Romney's candidacy as a whole: can Mitt lead his own party -- especially in a direction in which they are not that interested in going?
The issue at hand is student loans. President Barack Obama is pushing the issue hard, in an effort to enthuse the young voters who were so critical to his election victory in 2008. The interest rate on student loans is slated to double, starting this summer. If Congress doesn't act by the end of June, the rate will jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. This will be a burden on every college student who relies on such loans to pay the insanely-high price of a good college education in America.
Barack Obama is for keeping the rate where it is. Congressional Republicans (big surprise!) are against what Obama is for. This could be because they don't want to spend any money, or it could just be because they are against anything Obama suggests (on the general principle that if Obama wants it, it must be a bad thing).
Mitt Romney, this week, just came out in favor of Obama's plan to keep the rate low and more affordable to students. This is due to the fact that Obama has a whoppingly-large edge with younger voters, and Mitt is desperately seeking their support. Mitt, during the primaries, seemed to suggest he was against the concept of any non-wealthy students getting any sort of societal help in attending college. Now, Mitt has flip-flopped (or perhaps "Etch A Sketched"?), and supports such this "socialist" concept. Which leads to the question: can Romney convince the Republicans in Congress to vote for the idea?
Mitt Romney is now the de facto leader of the Republican Party. He is running for the job of leader of the country (or, as the more jingoistic would put it: "leader of the free world"). He claims, as his campaign's core rationale, that Obama is a weak leader, and that he would be a strong leader.
Here is his chance to prove it. Before the end of June, Mitt needs to get enough Republicans in both the House and Senate on board the proposal to keep student loan rates low in order to pass the bill. Romney will have to overcome the resistance from his party in Congress to be seen as handing any sort of "legislative victory" to Barack Obama in an election year -- which is a high hurdle indeed.
To achieve this, Romney will have to sell his own spin on the issue. It wouldn't be that hard to do. Here's a quick suggestion: "President Obama talks about how he wants to bring the country together, but without my help this bill would never have passed -- it was only through my leadership that we were able to bring Republicans and Democrats to the table to agree on doing the right thing. If you want continued gridlock in Congress and nothing to get done, vote for Obama's weakness. If, on the other hand, you want to see real progress get made in Washington to improve people's lives, then you should vote for me. My leadership has made possible what Obama's weakness could not."
Spinning it thus, Romney might turn the tables and squash any attempt by Obama to proclaim a legislative victory. Then again, it might not -- college students are not stupid, and they know full well which party supports student loans and which party does not. But it might just resonate with independent voters, even if it falls short with the youth vote.
Because Romney is now on record as supporting this effort, it is going to become a test of how far his influence reaches within his own party. Barack Obama can likely get every single Democrat in the Senate (and almost all of them in the House) to vote for this proposal, even if the vote were held tomorrow. The real movement -- and the bill's chances for passage -- needs to happen on the Republican side.
Which means it is largely up to Romney to make happen. If Romney successfully shepherds the legislation through, he could make a claim for leadership on the issue. If he can't lead enough of his own party, however, he will have failed a true test of leadership in the early stages of the general election. Can Mitt lead? We're about to find out.
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