Michigan was supposed to be the state where Mitt Romney cakewalked his way to the Republican nomination. After all, he was born and brought up here by a father who served as a three-term governor. Instead, Romney is stumbling—badly.
But whether he recovers—or falls into a political abyss, never to be heard from again—might depend on his ability to do something that so far has completely eluded him: offer a vision. Making tribalistic appeals and brandishing his resume, as he's been doing, isn't working so far—and might never work.
It is hard at this stage not to feel sorry for Romney, no matter how off-putting his perfectly coiffed hair (and positions). No sooner does he slay one Republican rival than another one rears his tousled head. Rick Perry. Herman Cain. Jon Huntsman. Newt Gingrich. And now Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, has vaulted from behind to establish a sizeable lead over Romney among the Wolverine State's primary voters. Romney has closed the lead somewhat in the last week but still remains several points behind.
Smart opinion attributes Romney's Michigan travails to his opposition to the auto bailout—the one issue on which he has not flip-flopped. He was against the bailout in 2008 and he was still against it as of this week. Liz Granderson, a CNN.com commentator, speaks for many of her fellow pundits when she notes that Romney turned his back on Michigan after he won the primary in 2008, so now Michigan is turning its back on him.
And that will certainly be true in the general election which Romney will have little chance of winning unless the economy goes into a double dip. But this is a primary contest, where Romney has to prove his bona fides to conservative voters, not union diehards, although Michigan does not prohibit cross-party voting. And even though more conservatives in Michigan supported the bailout than elsewhere, they did so out of fear and desperation, not conviction—something that no doubt induced a fair amount of cognitive dissonance in them. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that they would turn this issue into a litmus test for their candidates. Indeed, if that were the case, Santorum wouldn't be in the lead, since he is no fan of the bailout either. In fact, like Romney, he is on record saying that he would have let the auto industry fail.
Clearly, something else accounts for why Romney is sinking and Santorum is soaring. And it is not only that Santorum offers a more authentic persona against Romney's robotic façade. Nor that Romney is a Mormon and Santorum is not. Nor that Romney has the RomneyCare millstone tied around his neck and Santorum doesn't.
It is because Santorum is articulating a values-based conservative vision that appeals greatly to Michigan's Calvinist voters, especially in the western part of the state. This vision's unabashed reliance on big government might cause some internal friction with the limited-government leanings of these voters, especially since Santorum is given to saying things like "[The] idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do … is not how traditional conservatives view the world." But these voters are in sync with Santorum's broader ends: faith, family, and country.
Romney could swoop in, Reagan-like, and occupy the gaping holes in Santorum's message, offering a free-market alternative that combines fiscal discipline with a commitment to achieving conservative ends by limiting, not expanding, government. For example, he could argue that faith is best advanced by rebuilding the wall between church and state—a wall that George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives breached by throwing government aid at religious charities. This, he might go on to say, no doubt made it easier for President Obama to issue his mandate demanding that Catholic outfits pay for contraceptive coverage.
But Romney seems singularly incapable of articulating broad themes. He comes across as an utterly prosaic man who thinks in concretes, unable to abstract grand principles. When Michigan voters are pining for soaring rhetoric, Romney is rattling off his "private sector" accomplishments. When they want uplifting poetry, he is busy making trite hometown-boy appeals, asking them to vote for him because he is "a son of Detroit."
Romney's latest TV ad declares that, for him, "Michigan is personal." Actually, Michigan is going to be his denouement. So if there is any corner of his soul where some principles and poetry are tucked away, he should pull them out now. Or his birthplace might be where he ends up burying his political aspirations.
Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia is a columnist at The Daily, where a version of this column originally appeared.