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Media obsesses over Palin, ignores Romney

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum: Sarah Palin gets the headlines for her bus tour, ride on Harley
  • Media is discounting the potential strength of Mitt Romney, he says
  • Frum: Romney leads polls and has skills that may be valued in contrast to Obama
  • He says a president needs to be a strong negotiator and Romney fits the bill

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- Sarah Palin has mesmerized the cable shows by revving a bus and riding a Harley.

Pundits debate when Texas Gov. Rick Perry will join the presidential race and when Newt Gingrich will quit.

Meanwhile, the man who was and is the actual front-runner in the Republican presidential race rates barely a mention in the media commentary.

I'm talking about Mitt Romney of course, the former governor of Massachusetts who has polled first in almost every Republican presidential preference poll since January 2009. Yet somehow the commentariat will not believe it.

Romney's long-standing advantage is dismissed as pure name-recognition. Wait till the other candidates open fire on his health care record, his abortion flip-flop, his prior support for same-sex unions! His balloon will pop as soon as Republican primary voters start paying attention.

Romney to announce in New Hampshire Thursday

Romney's long-standing advantage is dismissed as pure name-recognition.
--David Frum
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And yet ... it turns out that Republicans who are surveyed by pollsters are paying enough attention to have popped more than a few balloons already. Not just self-evidently absurd candidacies like Donald Trump's, but presumptively serious candidacies like Newt Gingrich's have already imploded. Smart and appealing politicians like Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels have tested the waters and found insufficient support.

Meanwhile, Romney continues to raise money, collect important backers and ride along in first place in the polls.


Well maybe it is all name ID.

Or maybe -- does this give voters too much credit? -- they are thinking about the close match between skills Romney has and the skills needed in a president.

What do presidents do?

Among other things:

-- Presidents set goals and priorities. That's easily said, but hard to do. The natural temptation is to accumulate goals and priorities atop each other. (See Clinton, Bill, State of the Union addresses of.) But if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. (See Clinton, Bill, presidency of.) To govern is to choose. To choose requires extreme mental discipline: This I do first, this I do second if I can, this must wait for third, these next 997 things probably don't get done at all.

-- Presidents align means with ends. Congress is the place where the American people register their wishes: Generous Medicare and Social Security benefits and low taxes; global military predominance but no casualties; perfect airline security with no personal inconvenience. It's the president's job to bring the system into balance, to set budgets, to force tradeoffs.

-- Presidents are deal-makers. There's a story told about Harry Truman in the last days of his presidency, awaiting the transition to Dwight Eisenhower after the election of 1952. Truman supposedly said to an aide, "Poor Ike. He'll sit at this desk. He'll say 'do this' and 'do that.' And nothing will happen! It won't be like the Army at all." The president cannot tell Congress what to do. He can't tell a governor what to do. He can't even safely tell the CIA what to do. (If they don't like it, they'll leak against him.) And that's even before we get to foreign governments. A president doesn't get what he wants. A president gets what he negotiates.

Those requirements happen to look a lot like the skills Mitt Romney brings to the job. And they may be the skills for which Republicans -- and Americans -- most yearn at the moment:

-- The war in Libya, now dragging on for months with no visible strategic goal, reveals an ominous failure of priority-setting.

-- The terrifying national debt represents the country's accumulated inability to reconcile what it wants and what it is prepared to pay for.

-- The failure to lift the debt ceiling -- and the intensifying risk of a default on the nation's debts -- shows a staggering failure of the Obama administration's deal-making.

It sometimes seems that Americans choose their presidents by overcorrecting for the faults of the presidency before.

Was Bill Clinton undisciplined and indecisive? He was succeeded by George W. Bush, the self-described decider-in-chief.

Was Bush impulsive and aggressive? He was replaced by No Drama Obama.

Is Obama vaporous and utopian? Maybe what Americans are hearkening for is the analytic ability and negotiating prowess of the former CEO of America's most successful management consulting firm. And just possibly, Republican primary voters have the self-control not to let the controversy over Romney's health care record cloud their respect for their front-runner's genuine executive abilities.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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