Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney gave his first major public speech in 18 months on Thursday. The speech removed all doubt that he would run for president in 2012.
The speech also settled another question: Which Romney would run?
There are two Mitt Romneys, one bad, one good.
The good Romney is the decisive executive who built a great venture capital business in the 1980s, saved the 2002 Olympic games and delivered comprehensive health insurance as governor of Massachusetts.
The bad Romney is the Romney who delivered the governor's last major public address, at the Republican convention in St. Paul in August 2008.
"You know, for decades now, the Washington sun has been rising in the east. You see, Washington has been looking to the eastern elites. . . . If America really wants to change, it's time to look for the sun in the west. . . . " A strange thing to hear from the ex-governor of America's second most easterly state.
2008 marked the end of a two-term Republican presidency and the recent expiry of 12 years of Republican congressional majorities. Bad Romney disregarded that history to score a crowd-pleasing point:
"Last week, the Democratic convention talked about change. But what do you think? Is Washington now, liberal or conservative? ... Is government spending, putting aside inflation, liberal or conservative if it doubles since 1980? It's liberal."
So when Mitt Romney strode onto the stage at the Wardman Park hotel in Washington to address the Conservative Political Action Conference a little past 1:30 in the afternoon, anyone who admired Romney's undoubted abilities had to feel a pang of uncertainty.
Happily, it was good Romney who showed up. This Romney was focused, intelligent, modulated. OK, maybe he was a little over-infatuated with CEOs and tycoons, as he lapsed into praise of Sam Walton, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney. Yet his precise CEO mind served him well at a telling moment.
At one point, Romney's text read: "the government doesn't create jobs ... only the private sector can do that."
Romney pronounced the phrase as written, then paused. Problem: It's not true. Romney spontaneously corrected himself: "in a lasting way." Meaning: Yes, government purchasing can create employment, but only the private market can sustain economic expansion.
It may seem a small point. But it made a telling contrast with another much-anticipated speech, delivered only a couple of hours before by one of the conservative movement's great hopes: Marco Rubio.
The young, Latino and emphatically Catholic Rubio is running for the Florida Senate seat, challenging the state's Governor, Charlie Crist. Many conservatives despise Crist for supporting President Obama's stimulus plans. (Florida received a lot of stimulus money.) The twice-married Crist is also the target of whispered insinuations about his sexuality.
Rubio delivered a boastful testament to the American dream.
"This [the United States] is the only place in the world where you can open up a business in the spare bedroom of your home."
"[T]his is the only country in the world where today's employee is tomorrow's employer."
"[The United States] is the only place in the world where it doesn't matter who your parents were or where you came from."
And so on.
The problem is--it's not true.
There are dozens of countries where people can start businesses, compete with the rich and rise above their origins.
In fact, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development just this year released a detailed study of social mobility. Among developed countries, the United States actually ranks toward the back of the pack for social mobility, barely better than supposedly class-bound Britain. A child born poor in Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France (!) or Germany has a better chance of escaping poverty than a poor American.
There is evidence too that America has less social mobility today than it did a generation ago.
This information is not unconservative. Indeed it is conservatives who have identified some of the most important causes of America's ossifying class structure: bad schools in poor areas, immigration policies that favour the unskilled.
Yet when it comes time to fire up the crowd, all this knowledge is forgotten--and what is offered instead are self-flattering pseudo-facts and pretend information.
Romney's unscripted self-edit revealed a man who knew and cared about the difference between fact and fantasy. In a conservative world distracted and deluded by the Sarah Palins and the Glenn Becks, that self-revelation is desperately needed--and desperately welcome.
David Frum is a resident scholar at AEI.