When Texas Senator Phil Gramm ran for President in 1996, he was convinced he had the secret to ensure the success of his nomination: ready money. Turns out he was wrong (as fellow Texan John Connally could have told him after his disastrous run in 1980). Mitt Romney seems on the verge of a better definition of success: serious advanced planning. And it’s likely to give him the nomination.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The GOP was energized by the Tea Party movement in 2010 and with an unpopular incumbent and stagnant economy; they desperately want to retake the White House in 2012 under the leadership of an articulate and charismatic tea party conservative in good standing. And one by one those candidates declined to enter the race or have largely failed to catch fire. There is a precedent for this: 1996.
Two years earlier the Republicans were fueled by the Contract with America and took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years under the firebrand leadership of Newt Gingrich. And in 1996, they nominated the ultimate establishment candidate, longtime Senator Bob Dole, the party’s 1976 VP candidate. Gingrich once referred to him as the “tax collector for the welfare state.” Dole’s organization, fundraising, and support on the ground built up over the years, propelled him past the rest of the field.
Romney, an establishment favorite, would seem to be out of tune in this age of the Tea Party. His positions on important public policies have shifted over the years and have kept movement conservatives from embracing him fully. He brought to the race two weaknesses and one big strength: his flip-flops on high-profile issues, the health care bill, and his experience running for President in 2008. The question early on was whether the latter strength would overcome the two weaknesses. Thus far it has. He has an unmatched organization of local support, a fundraising prowess and conservative approach to spending (granted a much older and rather quaint definition of conservatives as tightwads), and very high name recognition.
It if fascinating that the health care issue has not harmed him in the pre primary phase. Romney’s well rehearsed response and ability to stay on message has helped blunt the criticism he’s received. And each candidate that attempted to overtake his perceived lead has failed spectacularly. First Pawlenty dropped out. Then Bachmann flamed out. Perry proceeded to embarrass himself. Cain’s rise in national polls does not reflect the weakness of his ground organization. Now Gingrich is trying to position himself as the anti Romney. Newt Gingrich. This is the state of the anti Romney forces in the GOP.
Then George Will took pen to paper this weekend to excoriate the former Governor this week for his flip-flopping and hedges. The issue that won’t go away has been brought back to the fore.
Will wasn’t always so frustrated by Romney. He wrote in 2004 that Romney
has done, or facilitated the doing of, some fine things, such as scrapping the Clean Elections Act, the Massachusetts mishmash of public funding and limits on political contributing and spending that was, Romney says, “designed to protect incumbency in the most extreme manner.”
Still, Will’s charge is sure to resonate. Romney’s team really should have seen this coming and shame on them for not better preparing their candidate to avoid the charge.
In response, Andrew Sullivan wondered “Despair? Or is there yet another option? A convention challenge? Who knows? Except the GOP is sleepwalking to likely defeat in a year they should have no problems.”
There won’t be a convention challenge and it is hard to see another option at this point. Will Romney lead them to likely defeat? Is this Bob Dole in 1996? Hardly. The incumbent is unpopular. The economy remains in a dismal state. The electorate is unhappy.
And despite the public grinding of teeth, flip-flopping does not always work to the detriment of a candidate. Ask John Kerry. Despite the oft-repeated charge, Kerry won the Democratic vote in the 2004 general election and the independent vote. Bush won not by simply tarring his opponent as a serial flip flopper but by a vastly superior campaign and get out the vote organization. He won by finding more Republican voters in key states like Ohio and getting them out to the polls. The Kerry Edwards campaign was inept in the same state, giving the Republicans an opening. Had they brought organizational prowess to that one state, the Democrats could have been victorious in 2004 despite the charge leveled at their standard-bearer.
The Romney camp is lucky—not prescient, and they would do well to remember that. Will’s article will help crystallize the anti Romney sentiment and the former Governor needs to be very attentive to this if he wants to get through the primary stage. A big upset by someone like Santorum in Iowa can change the early calculus. But if they survive this, they will give the party a very strong organization that can help put the anti Obama sentiment on a trajectory toward success in 2012.