WASHINGTON -- It is commonly argued that Mitt Romney has benefited from a weak Republican field, which is true. And that the attacks of his opponents have been late and diffuse. True, and true.
But the political accomplishment of Willard Mitt Romney should not be underestimated. The moderate, technocratic former governor of a liberal state is poised to secure the nomination of the most monolithically conservative Republican Party of modern history.
Some of this improbable achievement can be attributed to Romney's skills as a candidate. In 14 debates, he delivered one gaffe (the $10,000 bet) and once lost his temper (with Rick Perry) -- neither lapse particularly damaging. Under a barrage of awkward formats and dopey questions, Romney has been calm, knowledgeable and reassuring. The slickest network anchor could not have done better.
Romney is the varsity -- a far better candidate than, say, Bob Dole or John McCain. A Republican nominating process that swerved again and again toward silliness -- alternately elevating for consideration Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain -- seems ready to settle on a serious, accomplished, credible candidate. Republicans, it turns out, are choleric and fractious -- but not suicidal.
The nominating process has also revealed Romney's limitations. It would be awkward for anyone this stiff to pose as a working-class stiff, and Romney should not try. But if he gains the nomination, Romney's rival in connecting with average voters will not be Bill Clinton. It will be professor Barack Obama. Again, Romney benefits from the luck of the draw.
Romney has paired his skills with a sophisticated political strategy. His campaign team learned something from the failures of four years ago. Last time, Romney flooded the early states with money and personal attention. In Iowa, his limited return on investment made him a political punch line. This time, Romney rationed both his money and his presence -- lowering expectations and generating genuine enthusiasm when he finally arrived to campaign. When a late political opportunity presented itself -- in the form of a persistently divided Republican field -- the Romney campaign skillfully ramped up for a narrow win. Adding a victory in New Hampshire is an achievement that Ronald Reagan never managed as a challenger.
Ideology has always been Romney's main vulnerability. Running and winning in Massachusetts before running twice for the Republican presidential nomination is a process best described by biologists -- a story of adaptation and evolution.
Other candidates have naturally carried more vivid ideological messages. In the end, the intra-Republican argument has come down to Ron Paul versus Rick Santorum -- both effective spokesmen for their views. Paul, by his own description, is preaching the pure "gospel of liberty." He carries the hopes of libertarians and those who seek a return to the federal government of an 18th-century agrarian republic. Santorum stands more in the empowerment tradition of Jack Kemp or George W. Bush. On the whole, he is reconciled to the goals of modern government -- encouraging equal opportunity and care for the elderly, sick and vulnerable -- but not to the bureaucratic methods of modern government. Santorum's lot would encourage the provision of services through credits, vouchers and defined contributions.
I come down on the empowerment side of this divide. But maybe, at this moment, the Republican Party doesn't need a clear decision on its identity (which might not be possible anyway). Romney has this advantage: In supporting him, no Republican is called upon to surrender his or her deepest ideological convictions. Romney is temperamentally conservative but not particularly ideological. He reserves his enthusiasm for quantitative analysis and organizational discipline. He seems to view the cultural and philosophic debates that drive others as distractions from the real task of governing -- making systems work.
His competitors have attempted to portray Romney's ideological inconsistency over time as a character failure. It hasn't worked, mainly because Romney is a man of exemplary character -- deeply loyal to his faith, his family and his country. But he clearly places political ideology in a different category of fidelity. Like Dwight Eisenhower, Romney is a man of vague ideology and deep values. In political matters, he is empirical and pragmatic. He studies problems, assesses risks, calculates likely outcomes. Those expecting Romney to be a philosophic leader will be disappointed. He is a management consultant, and a good one.
Has the moment of the management consultant arrived in American politics? In our desperate drought of public competence, Romney has a strong case to make.