The 2012 presidential campaign offers Republicans the opportunity for a robust debate on the roles of free markets and state intervention in defining the opportunities the economy offers Americans.
From stimulus to Solyndra, Obama Administration failures create receptive ears for more conservative solutions among moderate voters. However, those voters do remember George W. Bush as a free spender and turning a blind eye to Wall Street abuses that still leave the economy limping.
To win, the GOP nominee must convince moderates he will eliminate unproductive government spending and regulations, but also rein in marketplace abuses. Campaigning on those issues, Mitt Romney could win, but his chances are hurt by Republican rivals and social conservatives who refuse to accept political facts.
Mitt Romney is fundamentally a conservative politician. He wants to enforce a level playing field in trade with China and rely on international competition to recultivate American competitiveness. He would open up domestic petroleum development and forthrightly deal with environmental risks instead of shifting those to developing countries, as is the policy of President Obama.
Also, repealing Dodd-Frank would recognize its reforms have all but dried up private mortgage lending and credit for America's best jobs creators -- small and medium sized businesses. Sending federal dollars and decision making authority to the states to cope with runaway health care spending, instead of imposing costly mandates, would recognize the fallacy of federal omniscience.
However, Mr. Romney is a politician with a history. He was a Republican governor in a very liberal state -- he made policies on health care and other issues in the context of Massachusetts. Hence, he is handicapped in ways Messrs Obama and his remaining GOP rival are not -- he actually had to run a state before offering to run the country. To succeed, he had to make compromises that reflected the political culture of that state.
For Republicans to fret that a President Romney would deliver a federal government as liberal as the Bay State during his tenure is folly and self destructive. For similar reasons, Mr. Romney's federal government would not be as conservative as his platform aspires. The U.S. Congress is simply more moderate than the Massachusetts legislature, but not nearly as conservative as many GOP activists would like.
Obama care might be disassembled but it wouldn't be demolished. Federal policy on social issues like funding for birth control and abortion would be more moderate -- not hard left as Mr. Obama's elitist advisors have engineered.
Social conservatives need to accept what is possible or risk getting nothing. Florida demonstrated Mr. Romney is capable of carrying just about every demographic slice -- from evangelicals to secular moderates -- because economics will decide the election. Bain Capital, notwithstanding, Mr. Romney looks pretty good.
Social conservatives must reckon with hard facts. In November, Americans will vote their pocketbooks, not their social conscience. Harping on abortion, gay marriage and the like would lose more votes than garner for the Republican nominee.
With the exception of federal financing for family planning -- something most Americans prefer not to deny poor women -- critical social questions like limits on abortion and gay marriage will be determined by state legislatures. If conservatives prevail in statehouses, those laws will be tested in federal court; then judges appointed by a President Romney would be more sympathetic to their values than those appointed by President Obama.
The endless attacks on Mr. Romney's conservative credentials and counterproductive obsessions with social issues only serve to prolong the doomed candidacies of his rivals, which are rapidly degenerating into journeys of personal vanity.
If Mr. Romney's rivals are serious about creating a better America, then its time to shift the debate -- beginning with their ads -- to explaining what ails the American economy and specific solutions.
Mr. Romney's platform articulates his diagnosis and offers realistic remedies in considerable detail. In contrast, Messrs Gingrich, Paul and Santorum serve up nostrums, platitudes, and unrealistic proposals like a Chinese menu of income tax systems and a return to the Gold Standard that will never come to pass.
I tell my students, to succeed you must address the world as you find it, not as you wish it would be. Mr. Romney gets it, but too many Republicans don't.
Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland School, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. Follow him on Twitter.