WASHINGTON -- Now that Illinois has come and gone, and Mitt Romney has won, the time has come not to bury him but to praise him.
Stripped of sentiment, accepting the pitiless morality of the American win-at-all-costs game, Willard "Mitt" Romney deserves to be acknowledged for what he is: the best in the brutal presidential election business as it now is practiced.
"He's got more votes, more delegates, more states and more money than anyone else," said a friend of his who insisted on anonymity to speak frankly about Romney's campaign. "Especially considering what he has had to overcome -- and I mean overcome, because he is an Ivy League, Northeastern, Mormon in a populist, Southern, evangelical party -- there is nothing else you can say except that he's the best candidate. That's what the numbers show."
Indeed they do, which probably means that we eventually will see just how what Romney has built stacks up against the cutting-edge campaign of four years ago built by Barack Obama. Has the president's game evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view)? Perhaps we will find out soon enough.
If that contest happens, it is likely to have all of the subtlety and sportsmanship of a battle for planetary control between the Transformers and the Decepticons. (You decide which candidate represents which side.)
With a clear-eyed lack of preconceptions, Romney and his close circle of aides figured how to master the mechanics and the money that would comprise a machine made to last.
Yes, he has money, family connections, good looks and a fine head of hair. But just about everything else he has assembled on his own: a sterling education, a lovely wife and family, a respected (which means cold-blooded) business career and now -- after a false start as a candidate in 2008 -- a campaign that is famously and effectively grinding its way toward the GOP nomination.
Besides his own background, Romney has had other forces arrayed against him. His lack of inter-personal and inter-species skills is now legendary. He is despised by dog lovers and TV pundits (two utterly different types of people). He brags egregiously about being a rich guy. He keeps saying things that show he is out of touch. He is up against a main foe -- Rick Santorum -- who is, arguably if not obviously -- a much better "fit" for the demographics of the Republican race. There are vast reaches of the American landscape Romney simply doesn't know (tho neither, when he ran in 2008, did Obama of Chicago.)
So how has Mitt done it? First, by raising money -- gobs of it. And unlike 2008, when he spent $30 million of his own fortune, this time he evidently hasn't opened his own wallet (at least not yet). He needed the cash because he didn't have a grassroots network or national appeal.
Second, by running a pretty tight ship of top aides, with little infighting -- at least not much that has leaked to the press. He pared down the inner circle from last time, and it seems to have worked. He has a large staff to focus on key details, such as the mind-numbing mechanics of district, county and state delegate conventions. Ron Paul is out-organizing him in places, as is Santorum, but overall Romney has an advantage in expertise, and experienced hands in the world of campaign finance and election law at the state and federal level.
Substantively, Romney has been adroitly, even cynically vague. He says he will use his business acumen to save us, but doesn't say specifically how. He says he will get us on a path to fiscal sanity, but doesn't quite say exactly how. This week he warmly praised Rep. Paul Ryan's new budget for its "bold" approach, but was careful not to endorse it line-by-line.
He has done it by changing or trimming or flat-out flipping his positions on every key hot-button issue of concern to the GOP base -- and has done it with a kind of bland self-assurance that shows he has a key quality necessary for success in politics: an utter lack of concern for the otherwise fine quality of consistency. Over the years, he has taken so many positions on the prescription drug benefit, for example, that it is impossible to know where his heart lies, or how his mind works.
Romney gave what was billed as a major "economic policy" speech this week at the University of Chicago, the Vatican of the secular religion of "Free Market" American Capitalism. He paid homage to the ghost of the great Milton Friedman, but his address was full of the kind of airy platitudes that would have driven Uncle Miltie nuts. Still, the speech allowed Romney to make a point: he wasn't for the Obama-style, feds-loving side of Chicago.
All that ducking and dodging has left Romney free to do what his team seems to relish the most, which is to beat the living crap out of any candidate who stands in the way.
Once again this week that man was Rick Santorum, whom the Romney crowd derided as an "economic lightweight" in millions of dollars of TV ads that blanketed Chicago and Downstate markets. Romney won, though he outspent Rick Santorum by seven- or eight-to-one and beat him by less than 2-1. So on a dollar-per-vote basis, Romney once again got clobbered.
You'd think that a businessman of his caliber might be concerned about such a lack of efficiency.
But he'll take the win and move on -- and on.