Over the past several months, Mitt Romney has been an excellent presidential candidate. He has performed superbly in the debates. He has outorganized his rivals. He has relentlessly stayed on his core theme of putting Americans back to work. He has taken Rick Perry apart with a cold ruthlessness that is a wonder to behold.
And throughout this period of excellence, he has done almost nothing to endear himself to Republican activists. They have spent this season of excellence searching for anyone else: Palin, Trump, Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Christie. On Nov. 4, 2010, Romney earned the support of 23 percent of Republican voters, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Today, he also has support from 23 percent of Republicans nationwide.
The central problem is that Mitt Romney doesn't fit the mold of what many Republicans want in a presidential candidate. They don't want a technocratic manager. They want a bold, blunt radical outsider who will take on the establishment, speak truth to power and offend the liberal news media.
They don't want Organization Man. They want Braveheart.
The question is: Are they right to want this? Well, if they want an in-your-face media campaign that will produce delicious thrills for the true believers, they are absolutely right. But if they actually want to elect an effective executive who is right for this moment, they are probably not right.
There are two important features of the current Republican moment. First, this is not a party riven by big ideological differences. This is not Reagan versus Rockefeller. Whoever wins the nomination will be leading a party with a cohesive ideology and a common set of priorities: reform taxes, replace Obamacare, cut spending and reform entitlements. The next president won't have to come up with a vision, just execute the things almost all Republicans agree upon.
Second, the challenges ahead are technically difficult. There's a reason that no president since Reagan has been able to reform the tax code. There's a reason no president save Obama has been able to pass health care reform. These are complicated issues that require a sophisticated inside game — navigating through the special interests, building complex coalitions.
Romney's skills are not to be underestimated. In the first place, he doesn't throw interceptions. As with quarterbacks, the chief job of a president is not to give the game away with unforced errors.
He does adapt. It has been stunning to see how much better Romney is as a candidate this time around than in 2008. This improvement must have come from a pretty thorough period of self-examination and self-correction.
He seems to know how to pick staff. His economic advisers include R. Glenn Hubbard of Columbia, Greg Mankiw of Harvard, former Sen. Jim Talent and Vin Weber, a former congressman. This is the gold standard of adviser teams.
He could probably work well with the leaders of his own party. If Romney were to be elected, he would probably share power with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the House speaker, John Boehner. These are not exactly tea party radicals. Instead, they are consummate professionals and expert legislators who could plausibly work together. More presidents have been undone by the congressional leaders in their own party than by members of the opposition.
Romney may be able to guard against ideological overreach. Romney may be inauthentic, but he is rarely overzealous.
Finally, Romney can be dull. Political activists like exciting candidates. But most people, who have lower expectations from politics and politicians, just want them to provide basic order. They want government to be orderly so they can be daring in other spheres of their lives. Romney is the most predictable of the candidates and would make for the most soporific of presidents. That's a good thing. Government would function better if partisan passions were on a lower flame.
It's exciting to have charismatic leaders. But often the best leaders in business, in government and in life are not glittering saviors. They are professionals you hire to get a job done.
The strongest case for Romney is that he's nobody's idea of a savior.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.