The stars are aligned for Mitt Romney. In every Republican debate, he has been left relatively untouched by the moderators and by every candidate save Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. He continues to ride high in the national polling, holding steady at near one quarter of the likely Republican primary voters. The Republican Party bigwigs, including key funders on Wall Street, are throwing their support to him.
There's only one problem: He'll lose the general election.
He'll lose the general election for a very simple reason: Nobody in the conservative base is excited about him. While the so-called GOP opinion leaders wax on about how super-electable he is, they fail to recognize that it is precisely that logic that gave us the unelectable John McCain. Turnout wins elections these days, not appeals to the independent voter.
Mitt Romney suffers from an enthusiasm gap. He seems to be everybody's second choice. He is few people's first choice. And that is a major problem for him. People pound the pavement for their favorite candidates. They work phone banks for their favorite candidates. They vote for their second favorite candidates -- but they don't work for them.
Republican Romney supporters seem to be counting on sheer dislike for President Obama to carry Romney to victory. That logic is not compelling. Democrats thought the same thing when they nominated John Kerry against the unpopular incumbent George W. Bush. But an empty suit will not beat an unpopular incumbent.
In short, Romney suffers from an enthusiasm gap. Higher-ups in the Republican Party may like the cut of Romney's jib, but the grassroots think he's a flip-flopping stiff allied with corporate cronies, not a principled leader in a crucial time. No candidate for the presidency has suffered from the enthusiasm gap and won the Oval Office since Richard Nixon in 1972. Romney will not break that pattern.
The question is whether the Republican establishment truly cares. In some ways, the Republican establishment's treatment of the Tea Party is very much like the old media's treatment of the new media in 2008. During that election cycle, the new media -- Internet and talk radio -- loudly proclaimed the irrelevance of the old media. They shouted from the rooftops that the old media no longer controlled the narrative.
And the old media had its revenge. They not only nominated their candidate of choice, Barack Obama, without vetting him in any way, they then proceeded to nominate their Republican candidate of choice, John McCain, by magnifying the flaws of all the other candidates and touting his "momentum" in the primaries. Then they proceeded to elect Obama by tearing down McCain piece by piece.
In this election cycle, the battle isn't between the old media and the new media anymore. It is between the Tea Party and the GOP establishment. Since 2010, the Tea Party has declared victory; they've decided that they now handle the rudder of the conservative movement, thanks to the election of candidates like Allan West, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker.
But the establishment GOP sees the Tea Party as a threat, for two reasons. First, they think that the Tea Party is more interested in principle than victory. They look at Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell and they see a descent back to the losing days of Barry Goldwater. In this, they may be right. Many of those in the Tea Party would rather run principled candidates who lose than elect Democrat-lites who proceed to corrupt both the government and conservatism itself from within. In this view, at least there will be clear lines of blame when liberals drive the ship of state into the jagged rocks of reality.
Second, the establishment GOP is not aligned with the philosophy of the Tea Party. They like the philosophy of a Democrat-lite: more efficient, effective government, but not necessarily a smaller one. This is the philosophy of Mitt Romney, who rips Rick Perry for stating that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme (which it is), who established a health care mandate in the state of Massachusetts, who supports Obama's continued nationalization of education, whose tax cutting talk is weak tea at best.
Even more than the Democrat-lite philosophy, establishment Republicans like winning. Was Ronald Reagan running in these primaries, the establishment GOP would attempt to dump him for Romney, the same way they tried to dump Reagan for George H.W. Bush in 1980.
The problem, of course, is that the establishment GOP philosophy results not in victory but in tremendous losses. When conservatism is politically inconvenient, it sometimes wins (see Reagan) and it sometimes loses (see Goldwater). But when conservatism embraces the politics of convenience, it always loses. If the establishment GOP succeeds in nominating Mitt Romney, it will be able to add another black mark to its long record of failure -- and, even worse, it will have co-opted the greatest Constitutionalist movement in a century for its own pathetic purposes.