Despite the surging Herman Cain, the White House’s attempt to link his health care advisors to the much-maligned and constitutionally dubious Obamacare, and tepid support from the Tea Party, Mitt Romney and his backers are confident. And why shouldn’t they be? He appears to have the the D.C. GOP establishment – both movement conservatives and moderates – behind him, heretofore disengaged GOP donors are looking in his direction, and he is consistently polling well in most important primary states. What is more, the mainstream media is reporting that his nomination is almost inevitable, D.C. insiders have pronounced him sufficiently “vetted” and “reassuring,” and Rick Perry’s supporters have grown increasingly disconsolate after their candidate has fallen in the polls as quickly as he climbed them upon his entrance into the nomination race. All is well in Romneyland. Or is it?
The various GOP insiders – talking heads, Hill staffers, lobbyists and other Washingtonians with a myopic D.C. focus – who declare Romney “ready” for the nomination, and sufficiently investigated, are apparently ready to accept a candidate whose record remains largely unexamined and whose talking points and policy prescriptions conflict starkly with his gubernatorial record. Further, they overlook the fact that Romney’s record alienates him from some of the most crucial voting constituencies necessary to capture the nomination and the presidency. Despite his seemingly positive trajectory, Romney’s ascendancy to the nomination isn’t the ineluctable conclusion many assume.
First, his recent speeches, talking points, policy proposals and debate commentary notwithstanding, Romney’s record suggests that he is likely not a committed social conservative or small government conservative. It requires only five minutes on YouTube to find plenty of evidence of this: his support for abortion rights and gay marriage rights during his candidacy for the Massachusetts governorship; his enthusiastic support for Ted Kennedy; his embrace of the alarmist global warming-cum-climate change agenda; his lackluster support for the Bush tax cuts; his obtuseness on TARP, the stimulus and the debt ceiling debate; and the conspicuous elephant in the room, Romney-care.
To win the GOP’s nomination, and more importantly, its affection, Romney must appeal to primary voters who embrace tax cuts and reject Keynesian economic stimulus; distrust the scientific “consensus” on climate change; loathe Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and the Obama regulatory regime; strongly oppose leftist social planning by legal, as opposed to legislative, mandate, e.g. abortion and same-sex marriage; and strongly identify with the Tea Party. Clearly, based on his record, which suggests opposition to these priorities, Romney has his work cut out for him.
His burden is only increased by his reluctance to distance himself from Romney-care. This reluctance may undermine his ability to redefine himself and may lead many GOP voters to conclude that he truly is what his record suggests he is: a Rockefeller Republican more inclined to tinker with a bloated, sclerotic regulatory state than dismantle it. His John Kerry-like stance concerning Ohio governor John Kasich’s union reforms – waffling followed by attempted strong support – only reinforces the perception. In short, Romney does not seem to share the fundamental conservative conviction that Leviathan – and its union minions- robs Americans of their liberty, and stifles their capacity for individual initiative and accomplishment.
Second, and related, Romney’s long-term political record suggests his recent embrace of doctrinaire conservatism results more from political expediency than core conviction. This is understandable. The national electorate has drifted to the right since Romney was a governor, and perhaps Romney is – smartly - drifting with the tide. There was no Tea Party in 2007. But let us engage in an interesting thought experiment: had Romney been governor of Massachusetts in 2010 and pushed Romney-care in that year, would the Tea Party have supported or opposed him? No committed Tea Partier would have supported Romney-care; that much is sure. With such a policy albatross in his closet, can Romney appeal to the Tea Party now? Perhaps.
The problem isn’t so much that Romney made an ostensibly good faith effort to reform health care in Massachusetts in a manner he thought most appropriate for his state at the time. That is what governors are supposed to do. The problem is that in an election when the basic relationship of government to its citizens is at stake, when we will choose either freedom or the shackles of government, it is imperative that Republicans offer Americans the kind of candidate who will not just tack to the right in the primaries then move to the middle for the general election, but who will move, as Thatcher and Reagan did and the Tea Party has done, the entire center to the right through dedicated, long term commitment to conservatism’s goals and the leadership to effectively prosecute them. Where in Romney’s speeches, talking points, campaign website or record is evidence of this commitment? Time remains for him to demonstrate such a commitment, but not much.
Third, there is ample evidence that undermines the D.C. establishment’s woefully premature coronation of Romney. The D.C. deciders have decided that Romney is “vetted,” that he’s “experienced,” and most compelling, that he is “electable.” According to the most recent National Journal Political Insiders Poll, Romney has a 98 percent chance of getting the nomination, with Rick Perry in second place at 72 percent. Soon enough, it will be said of Romney, as it was said of Bob Dole and John McCain, that it is his “turn,” as if the GOP nomination is a merry-go-round that rewards those who simply wait in line for their name to be called before they can ride the ride the campaign train to the White House. Except that train never makes it all the way: just ask Bob Dole or John McCain.
Fourth, frequently unmentioned by D.C. prognosticators is that no Republican will win the White House without substantial Hispanic support. George W. Bush won two terms because, among other reasons, he garnered the kind of Hispanic support that neither Bob Dole nor John McCain did. Unfortunately, as a result of his seemingly detached Northeastern persona and, regrettably, his Mormonism, Romney will struggle to overcome obstacles to the Hispanic vote that would not be present in, say, a Perry candidacy. Romney’s unfamiliarity with border issues and Hispanic voters only compounds this problem.
Fifth, the benign neglect shown Romney by the old media will end abruptly if he is nominated. At that time, Romney’s attempted policy prestidigitations will be revealed in full by journalists more than willing to sit on the evidence of Romney’s policy history during the GOP primary season. Once the general campaign season begins, however, the policy scrutiny that should be occurring now amongst Republicans will be occurring for all moderate and swing voters to see. Further, the media will further attack Romney’s faith, as ABC News did this week when it ran an article entitled, “Is It Too Soon for A Mormon President?” It is worth pondering why the old media seems so receptive to Romney’s prospective candidacy, and so intent on destroying Herman Cain’s and Rick Perry’s.
Examining the GOP field, the facts are these: for the past five years, while Romney was running for the presidency, Herman Cain created jobs and wealth, Ricky Perry successfully governed a large and important state, and Newt Gingrich made meaningful contributions to important national policy conversations. This observation is not to endorse these candidates, but merely to note that these accomplishments are not easily packaged in quick sound bites that score debate points. Debating is not governing, and the media narrative (so quickly embraced by the D.C. GOP establishment) that always emphasizes and values process, false promises of bipartisanship, and style over substance – see, e.g. Barack Obama – should not blind Republicans to their obligation to pick a candidate whose record demonstrates conviction and leadership on the most pressing policy issues. Romney may well show that he possesses these, and if so conservatives would be wise to rally to his cause. But the false narrative that says his ascension is the fait accompli the Beltway believes it is must be rejected. Republican voters, and the country as a whole, deserve much better.