Sunday, January 15, 2012

Romney’s turn? Don’t believe the hype

The outcome of the New Hampshire Primary, more or less predictable as the sunrise, was revelatory in at least one way. Its results boiled down the dilemma of the Republican Party in 2012: The weakest field of candidates for that party’s nomination for the presidency in years is animated by a frontrunner the party’s base doesn’t want; another candidate or two that the party’s base doesn’t seem to need; a credible, well-spoken contender the party’s base doesn’t trust; and a libertarian maverick the party’s base doesn’t know what to do with.

The puzzling aspects of this presidential campaign — like a circular firing squad as designed by M.C. Escher — haven’t stopped party regulars and a shorthand-hungry media from latching onto a reasoning for Mitt Romney’s seeming inevitability as the nominee, a rationale that’s as amnesiac as it is wrong.

Republican thought leaders and the media are circulating the idea that Romney’s apparent glide path to the nomination in Tampa is the latest evidence of the GOP’s storied inclination to pull a nominee from the ranks of those who ran before. And it’s true: From tapping Reagan in 1980 to anointing Bob Dole in 1984, from George H.W. Bush in 1988 to John McCain in 2008, the Republican Party has a historical record of being the party of second chances and loyalty rewarded.

Romney follows half that script; the former Massachusetts governor dutifully ran in 2008 but lost and is seeking his second bite of the apple this year. But from there Romney breaks with party precedent in a way that much of the party’s not comfortable with. The popular thinking emerging from the punditocracy is that, in 2012, it’s “Romney’s turn,” that he’s “next in line.” But the notion that Romney inherits the nomination by virtue of being “next in line” begs the question of how long that line was in the first place.

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Certainly for pol watchers in the media, the line of possibles used to be a lot longer, and any of them could have altered the arc of the campaign. Simply put: If former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had thrown their hats in the ring, any talk of Romney being next in line would be rightly identified as a laughable fiction.

If any of them had agreed to run — or all of them — the tone and character of the GOP campaign, its sense of gravity, would be vastly different. Among other things, if any or all of them decided to run, Republican voters would have been freed, liberated en masse to reject Romney outright — the same way many of them do right now.

He’s not the presumed nominee in 2012 because of any party loyalty to him. Many in the GOP, for example, blame Romney for providing the template for the health-care law that Republicans deride as “Obamacare” — a template conservatives say Romney created when he was Massachusetts governor. Many more diss Romney for a long series of flip-flops on issues and positions, an omnidirectional open-mindedness that led Democratic strategist James Carville to call Romney “a serial windsock” on CNN.

The only thing that makes it “Romney’s turn” is the comparative weakness of the field around him. For now he reaps the dividends of the obligatory GOP succession plan, like the junior executive who finally gets a shot at the corner office — a reward for waiting for his “turn.” But Republican loyalty to Romney is situational, temporal, and utterly expedient.

GOP succession may be historically reliable, but this time the old rules don’t apply. How can it be “Romney’s turn” to vie for the nomination — with all the presumed support from voters and party influentials that that phrase implies — when national polls of likely Republican voters indicate a rejection of him for the nomination? How can you be “next in line” when a sizeable number of your own party don’t want you in that line at all?

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Three new polls (released before last Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire) reveal the persistence of tepid support for Romney. The Gallup daily tracking poll found Romney with 30 percent support, followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 18 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 17 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 13 percent.

The Pew Research Center’s new survey of registered Republicans puts Romney leading with 27 percent support, Santorum and Gingrich tied for second with 16 percent, and Paul with 12 percent.

And a new CBS News survey placed national support for Romney’s campaign at just 19 percent of GOP voters. One striking distinction in CBS’ survey: In response to another question — “would you like to see someone else nominated?" — 19 percent of Republican voters said they would.

Romney, “next in line”? Depends on who you ask.

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If results in Iowa and New Hampshire are any guide, Republicans are increasingly coming around to the probability that, primary by primary, their party will soon be stuck with Romney — and the cognitive-dissonant burden of talking itself into believing he’s the heir apparent when the GOP would deeply, sincerely prefer that that title went to someone else.

They’re working on it: Over the weekend, a coalition of evangelicals and social conservatives met at a ranch in Texas to attempt to find a consensus on an alternative to Romney — the anti-Romney, if you will — to be the party’s nominee.

“The goal is to see if what occurred in 2008 can be avoided in 2012: Keep conservatives from being fractured and allowing a non-conservative to capture the nomination only to lose the general election,” said Tony Perkins of the Christian conservative Family Research Council, to The Washington Times days before the meeting.

Some Washington insiders, such as former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, have said flat out that the South Carolina Primary (set for Jan. 21) is the firewall event, the last best chance to stop Romney.

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But the Republicans brought this drama on themselves. The current hyper-partisan, zero-sum-game political climate drove better candidates away; the relentless Republican drive for ideological purity was a force multiplier for other candidates who never should have gotten in the race in the first place.

Some fear that Romney may yet be one of them. Steele said Jan. 11 on MSNBC that the candidate “has not been able to close that gap between him and the core base of the party.”

There’s a saying attributed to former President Bill Clinton, and since adopted as a kind of political holy writ: “Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.” But what’s developing in the 2012 race — with a party bent on finding a true believer and a media bent on creating a good horse race — is the noisy, protracted disunity that happens when Republicans fall … out of favor with each other. No matter whose turn it is.

Image credits: Romney: ABC News. Huckabee: © 2008 David Ball.

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