On no major issue did he move to the center in the last four years and on several (like Medicare reform, or environmental regulation) he moved decisively, even boldly to the right. The conservative commitments he made in 2008 (on social issues and other matters of policy) remain firmly intact, and the notorious flip-flops with which his thinking “evolved” over the years have receded further into the past (mostly before 2005) and so should seem less relevant, not more so.
Furthermore, as a candidate Romney has vastly improved with his self-assured, focused and coherent debate performances and a more genial and engaging, less plastic and patrician, personality. Looking at tape from four years ago and comparing it to the polished, capable candidate on display today, it’s easy to find reasons to rally to Romney’s cause this time, but impossible to discern any change for the worse.
Why, then, the stubborn conservative resistance to Romney’s seemingly inevitable nomination?
Some of his critics claim that right-wingers oppose him this time because they can select among better, more viable alternatives than in 2008, when some conservatives would do anything to stop McCain. This argument, however, displays a short, selective memory: in what way do formidable figures like Governor Mike Huckabee and Senator Fred Thompson, with all their governmental experience and folksy charm, count as less plausible or impressive than the likes of Rick Perry and Herman Cain? Moreover, the impassioned conservative 2012 candidates from the House of Representatives (Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul) hardly overwhelm the trio of House contenders from 2008 (Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo…and Ron Paul).
Part of Romney’s problem in this year’s race stems from Obama’s disastrous decision to push through his ill-considered health care reform, which brings fresh focus on Romney’s own sweeping (and controversial) insurance plan in Massachusetts. But Mitt had finished any tinkering with medical mandates by the time he left the governorship at the end of 2006, and in the intervening years he fought Obama care from the beginning and came up with refreshing proposals for more practical, market-based reforms.
The real problem for Romney this time around involves something deeper, and more disturbing than questions of policy, and centers on the utterly changed mood in the country at large and particularly within the Republican Party. Four years ago, despite the beginning stages of the economic meltdown and the last stages of a painful war in Iraq, the nation yearned unmistakably for unifying, reassuring leadership. Barack Obama pledged to fill that need and won the presidency largely based on his hopeful promises to bring people together, bridging barriers of black and white, rich and poor, progressive and conservative.
Today, after four years of incompetence, reckless spending, self-infatuated grandiosity and shameless class warfare, neither side touts compromise or cooperation while both try to rally their die-hard loyalists with promises to follow Conan’s prescription for “what’s best in life: to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of their women” (okay, maybe not the last part).
Amazingly enough, in the midst of the debt-ceiling debacle this summer, all the current leaders in the GOP presidential field (yes, including Mitt Romney!) urged John Boehner to risk default and national disaster rather than reach any deal with the dreaded Democrats. As the Super Committee struggles to craft some sort of agreement before the doomsday deadline at the end of this month, fierce partisans on both sides refuse to give ground and hammer out an agreement that might actually reduce the deficit and save the country. Democrats claim that Republicans want to wreck the economy for political advantage, or to steal more money from the poor for their rich Wall Street friends; conservatives insist that Obama and his minions scheme to wreck the economy to impose their vision of a totalitarian socialist utopia.
In other words, a moment of aspiration has given way to an era of anger, while hope-and-change morphed into rage and paranoia. Some measure of the sad state of the nation (and of the conservative movement) can be gathered from the desperate weeks that the preening demagogue Donald Trump actually received serious consideration as a presidential possibility.
In this atmosphere Romney looks suspect to many activists on the right not because he isn’t conservative enough but because he isn’t angry enough. His real problem isn’t a question of ideology, it’s a matter of attitude. Mitt can’t keep himself from looking self-possessed and unflappable, cool and collected, reasonable and restrained. Rage isn’t part of his emotional repertoire: even when visibly frustrated by Rick Perry’s boorish disregard of all rules of debate in the Las Vegas slugfest, he came across as more pained and perplexed than infuriated.
Like most seriously successful businessmen, Mitt is a pragmatic problem solver, a sensible fixer, a technocrat. It’s easy to imagine him rolling up his perfectly cuff-linked sleeves to begin a process of cooperative, institutional repair in Washington but it’s tough to visualize the perfectly poised governor at the head of an avenging conservative army, laying waste to the opposition in a merciless effort to smash the remaining redoubts of their power.
Four years ago, Mike Huckabee delighted his many admirers with a wonderful line that seemed to capture the more hopeful spirit of that time. “I’m a conservative,” he liked to say, “but I’m not angry about it.”
The fact that Mitt Romney’s lack of anger and indignation has become a disqualifying attribute to many of his conservative critics isn’t just a problem for Romney or for Republicans. It’s an alarming development for the United States of America.