I knew Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was a friend of mine. Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. I served as the Eastern Regional Political Director for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and reprised that role in his 1984 campaign, after an earlier stint as national director of Youth for Reagan in 1976. In recent days, political analysts like Karl Rove have pointed to Reagan's "come from behind" victory against Jimmy Carter in 1980 as proof that the stumbling Romney campaign can still win. The analogy is a bad one.
Reagan carefully pitched his campaign at the middle class and swing working-class Democratic voters. Romney disdains these very voters as his incredible performance behind closed doors in Palm Beach demonstrated.
The new majority coalition first cobbled together in 1968 by Richard Nixon, which elected Nixon twice, almost re-elected Gerald Ford, and elected Reagan in 1980 and 1984, moved Republicans from being the Party of Wall Street and the country club to be Party of Main Street. Both Nixon and Reagan knew that to win they would have to galvanize the Republican base while winning a substantial number of disaffected Democrats and Independents. This by definition meant attracting blue-collar and working-class Democrats. A stunning new poll showed that only 8 percent of Americans think that Romney's policies would be good for the middle class while 53 percent believes he favors the rich tells the story.
Karl Rove turned this thinking on its ear by making the 2000 and 2004 elections "base elections" in which winning votes in the middle was eschewed and maximizing the turnout of the Republican base through manipulation like the placing of gay marriage on the ballot in target states were the requirements of the campaign. After snuffing Ron Paul at the convention, Romney -- who never supported Reagan in the general elections of 1980 or 1984 and whose father George Romney refused to endorse Barry Goldwater in 1964 -- has a slow leak of conservatives to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, a trickle to be sure but enough to be troubleshooting in some swing states. Tough to maximize they turn out in your base when many in your base don't trust you.
Romney's campaign shows no effort at persuading those in the middle to vote for him and shows every indication that they believe victory can be seized by maximizing the turnout of the voters they already have. This is doubtful.
Reagan's message was optimistic and upbeat, appealing to the hopes and aspirations rather than the resentments of Americans. Reagan was also likeable and carried a net-positive favorability rating in the polls into October. Romney's unfavorable ratings have risen sharply after the leak of his callous-sounding comments in Palm Beach in which he appeared to write-off 47 percent of the vote, something Nixon and Reagan would find unthinkable.
That Romney would lump all voters who receive government assistance because they are lazy or consider themselves victims with those who for whatever reason cannot work and provide for themselves makes Romney a combination of Thurston Howell, III and Scrooge McDuck. To be sure, Nixon railed against those "seeking a handout" in 1968 and Reagan inveighed against "Welfare Queens" but neither lumped all working-class voters who may, at some point, need government assistance in with them.
Under Reagan, the GOP became the party of Main Street, not Wall Street. George Bush ushered the party back to the country club and broke faith with middle-class voters when he broke his "read my lips -- no new taxes pledge." Mitt Romney has completed the party's return to its exclusive big elitist business roots. The lack of young people, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians on the Tampa convention floor when the TV cameras' audience reaction shots spoke volumes.
Despite some attractive tax proposals, no doubt written by others for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor virtually never talks about growth or prosperity, his message dour and apocalyptic. Voters do want empathy in their president. They believed Bill Clinton felt their pain, Ronald Reagan shared their optimism and Richard Nixon shared their resentments. There is little evidence that Romney connects with voters on any empathetic level.
Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan.