Romney After Florida
Mitt Romney has won Florida, and with it a near-lock on the nomination. But the last half year has been hard on his image, mainly because of prolonged exposure to his plastic personality and long record of waffling. If the economy continues to improve, he’ll have little chance of winning in November. If it doesn’t, he could easily win. A Romney presidency, though, would surprise his supporters and enemies alike.
Last summer, the Romney campaign, bristling with dollars and at the top of the polls, made an move to orient itself toward the general election. Romney didn’t exactly moderate his fallacious rhetoric about President Obama (the implication that he apologizes for America, among others), he just uttered less of it. Campaign messaging shifted further toward the economy, Romney did his best to channel Reagan optimism, and he ignored his rivals.
But he never polled over 30 percent against his fellow Republicans nationwide (he still doesn’t), and with a big field of candidates to absorb their shifting sentiments, the conservative electorate made their displeasure known over and over again. Conventional wisdom long held that 2012 would be a single-issue election. Yet for the last year, Romney has had an advantage (albeit a fluctuating one) over his rivals in perceived ability to fix the economy, and it hasn’t made a difference – unless, that is, you make the reasonable assumption that it’s kept him from being an also-ran.
Something else is going on here. Obviously, part of it is race: Newt Gingrich knows exactly what he’s doing when he calls Obama the “food stamp president,” and so does Rick Perry when he calls the president a “socialist.” Romney frequently charges Obama with appeasing America’s enemies and denigrating capitalism. (When he was asked about Rick Perry’s comment, he refused to endorse it and then went on to say the same thing in different words.) They’re trying to stoke the feeling that Obama is un-American, that he’s an alien entity. America has been turning leftward socially for decades now: the young are less religious and more tolerant. It makes self-identified conservatives nervous, and Obama, born a generation past the boomers to a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, is a symbol of that change. For a Republican to clinch their party’s nomination today, they would have to convince voters that they share that anxiety.
Romney has trouble pulling this off: he’s a Mormon in a heavily Protestant party; his yearning for the presidency is painfully visible (he always leans forward and speaks too fast when he answers a question), he’s filthy rich in an era of economic uncertainly, and he hasn’t quite worked out how to be act comfortably around his fellow humans. And then there’s his record. Over two decades of political aspiration, he has changed his mind about nearly every issue you could think of – abortion, gay rights, healthcare, taxes, war, global warming, and so on. Conservatives, with their cultural baggage, find it difficult to believe that he will do what he says he will if they elect him. But they shouldn’t worry about Romney’s orthodoxy.
Nor should Democrats be so glibly joyous over Romney’s long history of vacillation. To them it’s fodder for ominously-scored campaign ads and debate talking points. But if Romney wins, they will discover that the danger of having a venal man with a negotiable principles in office is not that he can’t be trusted, but that he will strive too hard to please those who don’t think he’s a true believer. Romney may have trouble getting elected, but a Romney presidency is likely to be very conservative.
It’s easy to dismiss his more-patriotic-than-thou rhetoric on the campaign trail, where he must compete with expert demagogues like Newt Gingrich and sincere culture warriors like Rick Santorum. But Romney’s trust deficit with the Republican base is too large for him to swap his current approximation of a GOP firebrand for a more moderate general election winner. He’s still dead even with Newt Gingrich in national polling, slightly behind in important Midwestern states, and lags even further in the southern states east of the Mississippi. That will probably change, but not only must he wear his current personality until Gingrich quits, which now seems a long way off, but he must also dilute the general election version of himself as little as possible, or risk losing the base’s enthusiasm in November. Without a good turnout of self-identified “very conservative” Republicans, the party’s most frequent and best-organized voters, he’ll almost certainly lose; Romney has been hemmed in by his own ambition.
But Mitt Romney 3.0 – or whichever edition is current; I’ve lost track – is likely to live past a November win. He has given every sign of wanting to implement the policies he’s promoting. His chief adviser on legal matters is the ultra-conservative Robert Bork, and his foremost adviser on foreign policy is the uber-neoconservative John Bolton, a man so set in his beliefs that when he worked in George W. Bush’s State Department he actually withheld information from Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, whom he deemed insufficiently belligerent. Romney has said he would elect Supreme Court justices in the mold of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, Bush appointees who reversed decades of jurisprudence on campaign finance and maintain an expansive view of executive power. Romney is unlikely to get any wiggle room with Supreme Court appointees, and he knows it: it will be a long time before Republicans forget the vitriol that forced George Bush to withdraw Harriet Miers’ nomination. The former governor has also always been “conservative” on the economy, but the campaign has pushed him even further toward free market orthodoxy, and he’ll have difficulty turning back, if he’s so inclined.
The upshot of all this would be a retrenchment of Bush-era policy. If this is what conservatives want – and it seems that it is – they should be grateful that they ended the nomination process with the candidate most likely to win in November. The rest of the country should take a little comfort in what Romney had to do to get there – a little, but not much. He still has a good chance of winning, but even if he loses, Republicans are likely to field someone even more extreme in 2016.