Mitt Romney has gingerly picked up the challenge that was laid down to all the Republican presidential candidates recently by Newt Gingrich. In a weekend speech in Michigan, Romney sounded a message of change, telling Republicans they must clean up their own house before they can expect to win back public confidence.
Gingrich believes Republicans will lose the White House next year unless the party's presidential nominee makes a clean break with President Bush and the state of affairs in Washington. Romney's speech -- buttressed by modest newspaper and television advertising -- marked the first attempt to rally support by suggesting just that.
But the new speech raised at least as many questions as it answered, not least of which is whether it delivers on the Romney promise of real change.
Romney's appraisal of his party was hardly a slashing critique of the president himself. When he mentioned Bush specifically, it was to praise him for keeping the country safe and restoring dignity to the Oval Office. But threaded throughout was a critical assessment of what has happened in Washington during Bush's nearly seven year in office.
Romney offered a familiar, if incomplete, litany of Bush's mistakes. They include the administration's woeful response to Hurricane Katrina, the failure by the president to use the veto to check rising federal spending, even the government's failure to prevent the subprime lending crisis. He also scored Washington Republicans for their ethical lapses -- a criticism of the party's congressional wing.
"At this critical time in our nation's history, Washington is failing us," he said. "I think we'd have to admit that the blame doesn't all belong to the Democrats. We Republicans have to put our own house in order."
Romney's takeaway line, which he has used in newspaper and television ads since, is that "change must begin with us." It is based on the campaign's assessment that Republican voters in particular believe the party has lost its way under Bush.
"This message speaks to an understanding among Republican activists that we have to refocus our efforts as a party on our core policy principles and start acting like Republicans again if we're going to win in 2008," Kevin Madden, the campaign spokesman, explained in an e-mail.
He said Republican activists are "frustrated with the way Washington has been conducting business on the core issues of spending, border security and ethical standards."
One unaffiliated GOP strategist said he was impressed with what Romney had to say over the weekend. "Romney is doing the best job developing a message for the GOP to move beyond the Bush era," he wrote in a message. "No other GOP campaign has this strategy as an integral part of their quest for the nomination."
Other Republican strategists were far less complimentary, saying they found the message either confusing or contradictory. One wrote in an e-mail, "Truthfully, it's hard to assess whether this will be an effective message or not because I just really don't get it. I'm not sure what they mean by that phrase and how the campaign might demonstrate it or make it real to people."
Another strategist was even more critical, saying it could become fodder for one of Romney's rivals for a devastating ad turning the change message on its head by reminding voters of Romney's various flip flops on issues. "All his flip flops into one giant change ad," this strategist said.
Romney has adapted his change message to win over Republican voters. Whether he can broaden it for a general election audience -- which would be his goal if he were to win the nomination -- is more problematic.
Like many politicians, he decries the partisanship in Washington. He calls for a return to civility in the political discourse and says he's ready to work with "good Democrats" to change the capitol. "The political atmosphere in Washington has become so toxic, we are in danger of weakening ourselves from within," he said in Michigan. "America needs unifying leadership."
What is his solution? Apparently through brinksmanship and confrontation with those "good Democrats" over spending. "If I am elected President," he said, "I will cap non-military discretionary spending at inflation less one percent. If I get appropriations above that amount, I will veto them. And I like vetoes. I've vetoed hundreds of items already. Let's put some fresh ink in the Presidential veto pen!"
Notably absent from his speech was any mention of the central challenge before the country and the biggest issue of Bush's presidency. Scour Romney's prepared text and you cannot find the word "Iraq" anywhere in it.
He focused on the threat of Islamic jihadism, but offered neither a critique of the administration's management of the war nor any blueprint for the future of Iraq. His silence on that issue -- and his ringing call for victory over Islamic terrorism -- implies a stay the course strategy for Iraq.
Why did he ignore the war? "Iraq is the central front in the war against terrorism and radical Jihad," Madden explained. "Governor Romney purposely talks about the global conflict we're facing as a way to underscore that the threats we face from terrorists are not just limited to Iraq and Afghanistan."
Romney's speech offered an affirmation of the party's conservative values. In that sense, he is no different than the other leading candidates in trying to appeal to the party's base. The language and sound bites in the speech boldly aim to make Romney distinctive within a jumbled GOP field. The specifics make him still one of the pack.
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