Conservative resistance to Mitt Romney’s nomination increasingly emphasizes electability as much as ideology, concentrating on his perceived weaknesses as a candidate along with his inconsistent approach to the issues. In headlining a typical blog-posting, Erick Erickson of RedState.com laments: “Mitt Romney as the Nominee: Conservatism Dies and Barack Obama Wins.” Such desperate projections of impending doom inevitably portray Romney as the dreary second-coming of John McCain – a hapless moderate foisted on the disillusioned rank and file by the GOP’s country club establishment, and with no real chance to rally the conservative base or draw clear distinctions with Barack Obama.
This analysis (endlessly recycled and earnestly embraced on talk radio, FOX News, and right wing websites) relies on utterly groundless, ignorant assumptions about recent political history that have taken on a destructive life of their own and threaten to push the conservative movement toward increasingly irrational decisions and strategies. These three toxic myths demand point-by-point rebuttal and rejection as a prerequisite to GOP success in 2012 and beyond.
1) Analysts who never bother to examine the numbers mournfully (and fatuously) blame Republican defeat in 2008 on the millions of dispirited conservative true believers who allegedly stayed home rather than vote for the notorious “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) John McCain. In fact, the Exit Polls showed that the 34 percent of all voters who described themselves as “conservative” in 2008 precisely matched the portion of the electorate that saw itself as conservative for the triumphal Bush re-election drive in 2004. Because of the much larger overall turnout in 2008, this meant that far more self-identified conservatives (44,627,000) showed up at the polls for the McCain-Obama battle than in the prior duel between Bush and Kerry (41,571,000). McCain lost because he performed more feebly than Bush among moderates (winning only 39 percent, down from 45 percent) and particularly among Hispanics (31 percent instead of 44 percent), not because right wingers refused to vote or capriciously abandoned the Republican cause. Election Day 2008 actually saw the biggest turnout of conservatives in American history, and McCain drew an even larger portion of those voters (78 percent) than did Ronald Reagan (73 percent) in his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980.
2) According to prevailing myth, Republican elites disregarded the obvious public preference for more unequivocally conservative candidates and forced the nomination of the unpopular, Washington-tainted insider, McCain, who proceeded to run a disastrous campaign that dragged down the GOP at every level. None of this bears the slightest connection to reality, of course: in the run-up to the nomination, the party establishment preferred anyone but McCain (with Bush loyalists still smarting from his “maverick” challenge to their Crown Prince in 2000) and splitting its support among Romney, Thompson and Giuliani. By January, 2008, McCain had been all but cut-off by major GOP contributors. With his campaign flat-broke, he scored a miserable fourth-place finish in Iowa, before his stunning come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire, and the subsequent sweep to victory in 30 of the remaining primaries and caucuses. Moreover, in the general election McCain ran ahead of the Republican ticket in every region of the country: he drew 7,750,000 more votes than did GOP candidates for the House of Representatives, winning 45.7 percent compared to 42.5 percent for his Republican running mates. Most importantly, McCain captured 49 Congressional districts where the Republican candidates who ran alongside him lost. If GOP nominees had performed as well as McCain did in those districts, the Republicans would have won a comfortable House majority of 227 and John Boehner would have become Speaker two years earlier. Contested state-wide races for Governor and US Senate told a similar story, with McCain running ahead of his ticket in 61% of them (28 of 46). In most of the relatively few cases where statewide candidates out-performed McCain, the GOP ran well-established veteran office holders (Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Susan Collins in Maine, Jon Hunstman in Utah, Jim Douglas in Vermont) with even more pragmatic, centrist reputations than McCain himself. Across the country, McCain’s performance fully justified the main practical rationale for his nomination as he won literally millions of votes that other (more stridently conservative candidates) failed to get.
3) Rush Limbaugh’s favorite slogan “conservatism wins every time” represents a statement of wishful thinking rather than a fact-based analysis of historical performance. It’s true that Ronald Reagan’s inspiring, comprehensive conservatism brought two sweeping victories (in 1980 and ’84) but the same supremely gifted candidate lost two prior runs for the presidency (in 1968 and ’76) to two charismatically challenged, moderate rivals, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Yes, Barry Goldwater electrified Republicans with his delineation of “The Conscience of a Conservative” but he lost 44 states to the unspeakable Lyndon Johnson in 1964. More recently, Tea Party-affiliated candidates won several high-profile primary victories in 2010 but those right-wing victors went on to ignominious general election disaster in easily winnable Senate races in Delaware, Nevada, Colorado and Alaska. The big Senate gains for Republicans in 2010 came mostly from establishment figures like John Hoeven in North Dakota or Dan Coats in Indiana, along with unapologetic moderates like Mark Kirk in Illinois. The two most celebrated Tea Party victors in Senate races, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, actually won lower percentages of the vote in their respective states than did John McCain two years earlier.
In short, electoral experience of the last fifty years does nothing to undermine the common-sense notion that most political battles are won by seizing and holding the ideological center. In the last two presidential elections more than 44 percent of voters described themselves as “moderate” and no conservative candidate could possibly prevail without coming close to splitting their support (as George W. Bush did in his successful re-election bid). The notion that ideologically pure conservative candidates can win by disregarding centrists and magically producing previously undiscovered legions of true-believer voters remains a fantasy, not a strategy. At the moment, it’s easy to imagine Mitt Romney appealing to many citizens who would never consider Rick Perry or Herman Cain but it’s much harder (if not impossible) to describe the sort of voter who couldn’t support Romney (over Obama!) but would somehow eagerly back Perry, Cain or Gingrich (let alone Bachmann, Santorum or Paul).
Conservatives (as well as their moderate and progressive neighbors) may still find plenty of reasons to reject or dismiss the candidacy of Mitt Romney, but electability in November of next year can’t reasonably count as one of them.
A version of this column appeared originally in The Wall Street Journal.