Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Six months ago, in an editorial titled “President Romney,” I speculated that Mitt Romney—then behind in the polls—could prevail this fall: “If Romney can speak to Americans’ sense that it’s a big moment, with big challenges, and if he can make this a big election rather than a petty one, then he can win—perhaps big.” I continued: “Romney needs, over the next six months, to convince some number of swing voters he can and should be the next president. The easiest way to do this is by . . . behaving like a president. If you want to seem presidential, be presidential. . . . Let Obama lower himself by acting as campaigner in chief rather than commander in chief. Let Obama be shrill. Let his campaign be petty. Meanwhile, Romney can lay out his governing agenda to restore our solvency, put us on a path to prosperity, attend to our security, and safeguard our liberty. . . . If Romney can make that case, he has a very good chance to win.”
I quote myself not to claim prophetic powers. For one thing, I don’t know as I write on Friday, October 26, what will happen 10 days hence—though the signs are promising. For another, I’ve been wrong as often as right this election season. I recall this editorial of a half year ago only to make this point: If Romney wins, he’ll have won for the right reasons. He’ll have run a general election campaign that has avoided doing anything that would diminish the presidency or damage the country. It would perhaps be an overstatement to say of Romney, as Andrew Marvell said of another political figure centuries ago, He nothing common did or mean / Upon that memorable scene. But it is a fact that Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have run an uncommonly un-mean campaign.
President Obama and Vice President Biden, by contrast, have run a remarkably low and dishonest campaign. If their campaign of “vulgar spite” (Marvell again) fails to scare voters away from Romney, and if Romney prevails after a sober and dignified and, yes, presidential, effort, then Romney’s victory will have begun to lay the groundwork for a successful presidency.
If Romney wins, he may do so with the highest percentage of the popular vote won by a Republican presidential candidate since the end of the Cold War. He’ll be the first challenger to defeat an incumbent who hadn’t been weakened by a primary challenge since 1932. Victory will be a real achievement, and it will be made more striking by the character of his campaign. So Romney will have a broad field in front of him on which to lay out plans to govern. He should be able to resist the temptation to default to a cautious and mushy moderation, on the one hand, or on the other to fall into the pit of small-minded and petty politics.
There will be urgent things as well as important ones for a President Romney to do, and they will be difficult to accomplish. But he and Paul Ryan should take the time they need to make the most of the opportunity they’ll have. President Obama was guided by the pseudo-Machiavellianism of his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” In his rush to take advantage of the crisis, he wasted his presidency. Mitt Romney has the chance to see to it that a serious mandate—should he win one—doesn’t go to waste.
It won’t be easy. To actually devise and implement a reform conservative governing agenda will be hard. And the forces of reaction won’t go away. He’ll need to keep on fighting, as he’s done in this campaign, to overcome a desperate liberalism defending a desiccated status quo. Here’s Marvell, one last time:
The good news is that Romney can live up to Marvell’s exhortation. The same arts that gained Romney power are arts that can enable him to govern the country. As president, Mitt Romney will have the extraordinary opportunity to rescue America from the spirits of the shady night of a decadent liberalism, and lead the nation onto the broad sunlit uplands of solvency, prosperity, and, yes, greatness.
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