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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Romney Channels Dean

A lot of Democrats were probably amused late last week when Mitt Romney, in a speech in Nevada, said he was speaking for “the Republican wing of the Republican Party.” He was obviously adapting Howard Dean’s famous slogan (which actually originated with the late Paul Wellstone) of representing “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
Aside from illustrating a certain lack of originality in Mitt’s speechwriting shop, the line has been broadly interpreted as being a shot at Rudy Giuliani’s heterodoxy on cultural issues, and (viz. John McCain’s derisive response) probably a mistake, given Romney’s own history of recently repudiated moderation and bipartisanship.
But I suspect this is a theme that Romney will continue to use, because it has an anti-Washington subtext that goes beyond its utility in savaging Rudy.
Let’s remember that Dean’s campaign was less an ideological crusade (aside from his opposition to the Iraq War) than a vehicle for the steadily growing belief of many Democrats that their representatives in Washington had lost touch with both progressive principles and the sentiments of rank-and-file party members. And Dean’s own credibility as the leader of a “people-powered movement” owed relatively little to his own record as a centrist, bipartisan governor of Vermont (as Dick Gephardt’s campaign was quick to point out on the campaign trail in Iowa). But the fact that he was a governor untainted by the alleged culture of cowardly compromise in DC was the only credential he really needed.
Anti-Washington appeals have an ancient provenance in Republican politics. It was an important part of George W. Bush’s message in 2000 and of Ronald Reagan’s message in 1980 and 1976. And going back much further, the idea that there was an evil and corrupt “Eastern Establishment” in the GOP that consistently betrayed rank-and-file conservatives was central to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 insurgency, and to Robert Taft’s 1940, 1948 and 1952 campaigns.
While most Democrats (myself included) think of the current, Washington-based GOP as faithfully reflecting the natural consequences of conservative ideology in power, there’s a powerful psychological need among conservatives to believe otherwise. The overwhelming consensus intepretation of the 2006 debacle on the Right was that Bush and his congressional allies “went native” in Washington and betrayed their conservative principles, refusing to rein in spending, embracing an immigration amnesty and a Medicare expansion in the pursuit of swing voters, and (pre-surge, at least) failing to go all out for victory in Iraq.
As it happens, there’s no 2008 Republican candidate (with the possible exception of the severely underfunded Mike Huckabee) who is the natural vehicle for this revisionist take on the GOP’s past, present and future. So Romney’s exploiting the void, and can be expected to continue this effort.
I wouldn’t want to push any Dean-Romney parallelism very far. Unlike Dean, Romney does not “own” any key galvanzing issue. Unlike Dean, Romney does not possess any new movement-building tool for creating an army of supporters to lead (unless you think his campaign’s alleged mastery of “microtargeting” qualifies as a pale reflection of Dean’s internet-based juggernaut). And unlike Dean, Romney’s running a slick and highly professional campaign that does not exactly ooze rough-edged authenticity.
But unless and until some other candidate can seize the anti-Washington, anti-centrist mantle, don’t be surprised if Mitt keeps calling himself the leader of the “Republican Wing of the Republican Party.”
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist

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