Fresh from another Republican debate watched by dozens of people on the Bloomberg network, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the race is Mitt Romney’s to lose. The question is: is this a good thing for the Republican party?
I haven’t decided who to support in this campaign for the same reason as many conservatives: there are reasons to dislike or worry about all of them.
- Rick Perry doesn’t seem like he really wants the job. I think the pressure to join the race appealed to his ego and got him thinking Big Thoughts, but his heart’s not in it. He clearly is spending no time on debate preparation and is on a neutrino-paced ride back to Austin and the job with which he’s done well.
- Jon Huntsman has, in Jonah Goldberg’s phrase, a face that you just want to punch. He’s insufferable and arrogant, and the least conservative candidate in the field.
- Ron Paul is right on many issues that have absolutely nothing to do with foreign policy. His foreign policy stance is a toxic stew of isolationism, blame-Americaism, and outright denial of reality.
- Newt Gingrich is the smartest guy in the room. Also the one with the most baggage. He’s simply unelectable to high office, and suffers from some of the same sense of intellectual self-importance that makes Obama so arrogant.
- Gary Johnson is…I don’t know who Gary Johnson is. Some dude who’s running for President and has a smaller chance than I do.
- Michelle Bachmann is a fighter as she tells you at every single opportunity. One gets the feeling that right now she’s tracking somebody down so that she can pin him to the wall and tell him what a fighter she is. The trouble is that there may have been a lot of battles she waged in the House, but there are no victories. She’s also gaffe-prone and so doctrinaire in her beliefs that I’m not sure she’d be capable of compromising, even if it meant she got 99.9% of what she wanted. Whenever I see her talking policy I think of George Costanza talking himself and Jerry out of a deal with NBC by insisting that the show be “about nothing” despite what the network executives want. I think Bachmann is right on a lot of issues, but her campaign is unraveling at light speed (i.e., slightly slower than Perry’s).
- Rick Santorum is where my heart lies. He’s about as solid a conservative as you can get, he’s got a good resume (a great resume includes a gubernatorial stint), he’s been good in the debates. I’d happily cast a vote for Rick Santorum in November 2012. The problem here is that I’m probably not going to get that chance. His campaign is cash poor and being run out of a camper parked on a front lawn somewhere in western Pennsylvania. He is the only candidate talking about the morality of how economics affects families, and I think that is a great issue that can be easily sold to a lot of people who are feeling the pinch. Bad economic policies do more than hurt your pocketbook, they can also tear at the societal fabric. What Santorum lacks is star power and charisma. Sadly, that’s a lot more important now than it was when, say, Grover Cleveland was running for President.
- Herman Cain is the single most likable candidate. He’s sunny, optimistic, funny, smart, and has the best “rags-to-riches and I beat the Big C, too” backstory of any of the candidates. He’s got some problems, though. His “9-9-9” plan will not work. Period. End of sentence. It’s a lousy plan that is based on unrealistic projections. He is clueless about foreign policy and doesn’t seem inclined to learn. While he has many great lines, he’s not really a great debater. Whatever the subject of the question, he turns it back to “my 9-9-9 plan,” which has crossed the line from “talking point” to “mantra” and is likely soon to jump the shark. Also, we learned in 2008 that the presidency is not an entry-level job. His business experience, like Romney’s, is interesting but not conclusive. Government is not business, and the President is not the national CEO. It’s one thing to be CEO of a company and have your employees implement your desires. It’s another to deal with coequal branches of government.
Which brings us back to Mitt Romney, one of the most inauthentic politicians I’ve ever laid eyes on.
First it must be acknowledged that this is not the same Mitt Romney who ran in 2008. Somewhere in the past three years Romney has loosened up, become an excellent debater, and has gotten much more comfortable in his own skin. Maybe that means that the Romney we see now is the real guy, that he’s finally letting his conservative freak flag fly. Maybe he’s just been in some coaching sessions with media consultants.
But Romney is a very bitter pill for conservatives to swallow. Obamacare, the solar-powered windmill conservatives have spent two years tilting at, is not much more than a CinemaScope remake of Romneycare. Nominating Romney removes, or at least damages, that issue for Republicans. Romney also has a well-deserved reputation for flip flopping on various issues, most famously abortion. He gives the impression that he will agree with whatever the majority is telling him. In liberal Massachusetts, Romney was a liberal Republican who partnered with Ted Kennedy (as did George W. Bush and don’t think for a second I’ve forgiven him for that). Now he sounds like he’s wearing a tri-corner hat at a local Tea Party, and questions about his liberal record are deflected or treated as if they are irrelevant.
Mitt Romney is not the inevitable candidate. Yet. The Republican primary voters are still looking for, in John Podhoretz’s words, the “Not-Romney” candidate. Today it’s Herman Cain. Previous winners have included Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry. It’s possible that Cain will give way to Santorum, the only truly viable Not-Romney left, but it is most likely that when the dust settles Mitt Romney’s perfect hair, smile, and endless record of prevarication will be the only things left.
This isn’t necessarily the end of the world. As a candidate in the general election, I would support Romney. That’s an easy choice given the alternative. The key to Romney’s success as a conservative politician will be the makeup of Congress in 2013 and beyond. A conservative House passing conservative bills to a conservative Senate who passes the bills to President Romney will likely result in conservative policies being implemented. A divided Congress or, God forbid, a liberal/Progressive Congress, will co-opt Romney and he will govern from the center, much as Bush 41 and Bush 43 did.
I can live with Romney as the candidate, though he’s very far from my first choice. His candidacy does raise the stakes, though. With Romney in charge, it will be more important than ever for conservatives to maintain or increase their control of the House and to gain control, preferably filibuster-proof control, of the Senate. An “important to have” Congress under a conservative President like Santorum, Bachmann, or Cain becomes a “must have” Congress under President Romney. It would do the Tea Party well to remember this if they’re thinking about sitting out the election: Romney isn’t the only name on the ballot, and President is not the only office needing to be filled.