Well, that was ugly. And Mitt Romney must feel the same way.
With his serious competitors now out of the way, Mitt Romney has basically locked up the Republican nomination for president. But a series of bloody primaries, fought mostly against more conservative candidates, has left Romney seeming somewhat tattered and at times downright unpresidential.
Though gentle by nature and Brahmin by upbringing, Romney spent the primary season trying to prove that he's "severely conservative," as he said in February. To earn those stripes, Romney opposed employer-funded contraception, embraced Arizona's tough anti-immigration law, and distanced himself from the healthcare reform plan he himself implemented as governor of Massachusetts. He supported a federal budget plan that would sharply curtail Medicare benefits while proposing tax cuts that would leave the U.S. government running on fumes.
Meanwhile, Romney made recurring gaffes like his $10,000 bet with Rick Perry and his proud announcement in Detroit that his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs." He's just an ordinary guy who likes a friendly wager and a nice ride, you see.
Romney now has just one opponent, President Obama—who stands on Romney's left, not his right. If Romney's gyroscope is working, he finally has a chance to regain his balance and formulate a campaign strategy that will seem coherent to voters by the fall. Here's how Romney can recover from the GOP's intraparty warfare of the last nine months:
Get comfortable with his wealth. Americans don't dislike rich people. They admire them, in fact, for one obvious reason: Many people dream of being rich someday. But Americans do object to phonies, and especially to rich people who selectively put on homespun airs. This is the way many people view Romney, who owns several lavish homes but wears jeans on the campaign trail, adopts a southern lilt when he's in the South, and has aides talk up his simple oatmeal breakfasts and the way he used to hassle his kids about long showers.
To close the empathy gap he faces with Obama, Romney needs to speak more freely about his wealth instead of pretending it doesn't make him any different from Joe Sixpack. It does make him different. Instead of his instinctive defense of the 1 percent, Romney might admit that the Occupy protesters have a valid point or two; not enough money is flowing downhill. He might propose a few tangible ways the wealthy could give a bit more back to everybody else—and do so publicly, not in secret meetings with supporters. He might even borrow from Obama, who seems genuine and likable when he says "people like me" don't need tax breaks.
Develop a coherent tax and spending plan. Romney would leap ahead of Obama on the credibility meter if he actually explained how government is going to function in the future. Romney has promised that he would cut taxes, raise defense spending, and balance the budget, which is basically mathematically impossible, as reliable groups such as the Tax Policy Center and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have pointed out. Romney, who made his fortune as a world-class financier, surely knows this. Yet up till now he has peddled the hoary trickle-down theory that cutting taxes solves every problem. The last 10 years prove that's a fantasy.
The conventional wisdom is that politicians can't ask voters for sacrifice or tell them the truth about the pain that's coming and still expect to get elected. Maybe. But Romney undermines his own supposed expertise on business and the economy by dumbing down his proposals and hoping voters are too gullible to notice the holes and inconsistencies. As Romney knows, you couldn't run a business or even a lemonade stand with the kind of shifty, half-baked measures he's proposed so far. If he's an expert on running things, he should show us how he plans to make the hard choices as well as the easy ones.
Acknowledge a mistake or two. Americans tend to be forgiving—but you've got to say you're sorry first. Romney has stood by practically everything he's ever said or did, even if he did the opposite later. He supported abortion rights, then he was against abortion, and both positions were somehow justified, according to him. He's against gay marriage now but he was far more tolerant of it when he was governor, because it was the way to keep the peace in Massachusetts. Healthcare reform was right for Massachusetts, but a similar law is wrong at the federal level, because … oh, who cares.
Instead of always being right, Romney might learn to say he was simply wrong before, and has since changed his mind. It works for lesser mortals. Here's a good place to start: That trip with Seamus the dog on the roof of the family car back in 1983. "Maybe we shouldn't have done that," Romney could say. "But it seemed OK at the time." People would get that. Changing your mind because you got smarter isn't as objectionable as flip-flopping to suit the political winds. You can even do it from the back seat of a Cadillac.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.