On Feb. 7, 2008, Mitt Romney was in a very different position.
He had competed hard with Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) and captured Nevada, just like he did this year, but came up short in Florida and New Hampshire, both states he won in 2012. He had poured gobs of his own money into the campaign en route to winning 11 states including his native Michigan and the state where he was governor, Massachusetts, but his prospects for capturing the nomination looked dim.
And so on the stage of the Conservative Political Action Conference, one of the nation’s premiere gatherings of top right-leaning talent, he ended his campaign for the presidency.
That speech, which you can read in its entirety here, gives a window into where the country - and the GOP - stood heading into the last presidential election. Here are five moments from Romney’s 2008 speech that are worthy of reappraisal today.
5. “I’m convinced that unless America changes course, we could become the France of the 21st century. Still a great nation, but not the leader of the world, not the superpower. And to me that’s unthinkable.”
The more some things change (as you will see below), the starker the relief in which the things that stay the same appear. Romney’s criticism that President Obama is attempting to turn American into a European-style social welfare state is still a key attack line on the stump and in his prepared speeches today.
4. “Eleven states have given me their nod, compared to [McCain’s] 13. Thank you to those 11. Of course, because size does matter, he’s doing quite a bit better with the number of delegates he’s got.”
That may be the only joke Mitt Romney has landed in four years.
3. Taking a stand on government spending?
Our economy is also burdened by the inexorable ramping up of government spending.
And let’s be careful: Let’s not just focus on the pork alone, even though it is indeed irritating and shameful. Look also at the entitlements. They make up 60 percent of federal spending today. And by the end of the next president’s second term they will total 70 percent.
Any conservative plan for the future has to include entitlement reform that solves the problem, not just acknowledges it.
Romney was spot-on in his assessment of entitlement spending and its role as a serious political issue in the future. However, 2008 Romney perhaps wouldn’t be so impressed with 2012 Romney’s economic plan, which the Wall Street Journal famously called “timid.” They were equally unsparing about his plans for entitlement reform:
On spending, Mr. Romney joins the GOP’s “cut, cap and balance” parade, setting a cap on spending over time at 20% of GDP. What Mr. Romney doesn’t do is provide even a general map for how to get there, beyond cutting spending on nonsecurity domestic programs by 5% upon taking office.
He praises Paul Ryan for making “important strides” on Medicare but says his plan “will differ,” without offering details. He also says there are a “number of options” to reform Social Security without endorsing any of them. We are told those specifics will come later. It’s hardly unusual for candidates to avoid committing to difficult proposals, but it won’t help Mr. Romney contrast his leadership with Mr. Obama’s.
2. To go the distance?
“Even though we face an uphill fight, I know that many in this room are fully behind my campaign.”
AUDIENCE: Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!
“You are with me all the way to the convention. Fight on, just like Ronald Reagan did in 1976.”
With Newt Gingrich vowing to take the GOP race all the way to the Republican nominating convention in Tampa and Ron Paul pursuing a strategy of racking up as many convention delegates as possible even if he’s not going to win the nomination outright, this question of whether to persevere or pass to one side continues into the 2012 campaign.
But what all candidates must do is weigh their own chances against the good of the party. Thus, what has changed for Romney - and the nation - is the reason Romney gave for dropping out. For Romney, it was…
1. Terrorism and “radical jihad.”
“Today we are a nation at war. And Barack and Hillary have made their intentions clear regarding Iraq and the war on terror: They would retreat, declare defeat.
And the consequence of that would be devastating. It would mean attacks on America, launched from safe havens that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child’s play. About this, I have no doubt.
Now, I disagree with Senator McCain on a number of issues, as you know.
But I agree with him on doing whatever it takes to be successful in Iraq, and finding and executing Osama bin Laden.
Now, if I fight on, in my campaign, all the way to the convention…I want you to know, I’ve given this a lot of thought — I’d forestall the launch of a national campaign and, frankly, I’d make it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win.
Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”
My oh my, how the times have changed. In 2008, Romney ended his campaign because he would, as he put it, draw out the GOP race and make it easier for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton win the White House and subsequently surrender to the terrorists.
Today, of course, the script is completely flipped. After killing Osama bin Laden, extricating the US from Iraq and winding down affairs in Afghanistan, working out a perhaps un-Constitutional but very effective dismantling of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, using arguably extra-Constitutional measures to kill an Al Qaeda cleric who happened to be an American citizen in Yemen, and, oh, by the way, killing bin Laden, President Obama has some of the toughest foreign policy bona fides around.
To Romney’s points, there have been attempted attacks - from the underwear bomber to package bombs - but none successful as of yet and certainly nothing like a revitalized Taliban a la 2001.
The day after Romney spoke, the Dow closed at around 12,250 and the unemployment rate was, wait for it, 4.9 percent.
Today, the Dow’s back to almost 13,000 - but it took a steep drop well south of 10,000 en route. And unemployment? That’s at 8.3 percent.
In a January survey, a New York Times/CBS poll found that the economy (at 56 percent) was the top factor voters would consider when voting for president. Terrorism didn’t merit a mention, although “something else” and “unsure” together added up to seven percent.
In a sense, this change in focus from foreign policy to the economy makes Romney’s candidacy more viable in 2012 than it was in 2008. Then, foreign policy - and McCain’s long record therein- was at the fore. Today, Romney’s business experience and the economy are at the top of voters minds.
— David Grant / @DW_Grant
PHOTO: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures during a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008, in Washington, where he announced he was suspending his faltering presidential campaign. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)