The early anointment of Mitt Romney or any other presidential candidate will repeat a common GOP mistake.
In recent years, the Republican Party has conferred its presidential nomination the way companies used to hand out gold watches at retirement parties. Candidates are rewarded for long years of service, finishing second the last time around, and politely waiting their turn. Perhaps it is a reflection of the conservative temperament: while Democrats frequently nominate fresh faces, Republicans tend to prefer the tried and true. Patience is a virtue, respect your elders, good things come to those who wait.
Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain won the GOP nomination after finishing second in the party’s last round of competitive primaries. After the crushing disappointment of the close 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon rallied loyally behind Barry Goldwater at a time when many other Republican leaders effectively sat out the race. For this, Nixon was given his second chance in 1968.
Even the one recent exception proves the rule. When George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, began exploring a presidential bid some polls found that nearly half of Republican voters thought he was his father, the former president. He entered the race with a nearly insurmountable advantage in name recognition. The second-place finisher from the last time around, Patrick Buchanan, bolted the GOP for the Reform Party in October 1999. Bush the son became the natural front-runner.
In return for their gold watches, Nixon and Reagan led the Republican Party to the White House. They were both reelected in 49-state landslides. Reagan missed out on making it 50 by less than one vote per precinct in Minnesota, his 1984 challenger’s home state. But the Dole and McCain campaigns had the feel of futility about them almost from the beginning. Both men openly asked the voters to send them on “one more mission,” as if they were embarking on a farewell tour rather than a presidential campaign. Their final bids for the presidency ended about as well as Brett Favre’s last football season.
Unlike Dole or McCain, the Bushes were able to win the November election and the presidency. The younger Bush even won two terms, though both elections were arguably much closer than they needed to be. But both men clearly left the Republican Party weaker than they found it. In both cases, the Democrats wound up with unified control of the federal government’s elected branches. If this is the most successful a hereditary monarchical strategy for awarding the GOP nomination can be, perhaps the strategy should be revisited.
IF THIS HISTORY IS ANY reliable guide, Mitt Romney will likely be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. Romney finished second in the 2008 Republican delegate count. Had he continued his campaign longer, he almost certainly would have been second in the popular vote. Instead Romney suspended his presidential campaign once it became clear he could not win, dutifully supporting McCain while Mike Huckabee collected the remaining anti-McCain vote.
Based on the polls, Romney is not an overwhelming early front-runner in the tradition of Dole. Most reputable surveys find Romney bunched together with Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the head of the pack. But the early polls can be misleading: Rudy Giuliani was the national front-runner throughout 2007 but seldom finished ahead of Ron Paul once the actual voting commenced.
Moreover, of the top Republican candidates only Romney is a virtual certainty to run. He is much further along in building his campaign organization. Romney has already hired a pollster, political director, and other key staffers. Pitted against a Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty rather than a Palin or Huckabee, Romney begins to look like a colossus. But it is really the Republican tradition of rewarding the second-place finisher that makes Romney look like the front-runner. To use Romney’s preferred Olympics analogy, last time the former Massachusetts governor got the silver; this time he’s the favorite for the gold.
Conservatives rightly value tradition, but this GOP custom is one they need to rethink. Romney is a spectacular mismatch with the Republican base of 2012. There are also good reasons to think he would struggle mightily in a general election against Barack Obama, or at least hopelessly muddle key parts of the Republican message. Republicans have gone down this road before, most recently when they nominated John McCain.
McCain was a sponsor and co-author of the immigration legislation Republicans almost unanimously rejected, especially in the House. In 2001 and 2003, he voted against the tax cuts that his party almost unanimously supported. Only liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who ultimately endorsed Obama and left the party, joined McCain in voting against the second round of tax cuts. Chafee was only one of four Republican senators to have consistently lower American Conservative Union ratings than McCain in the decade prior to his winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Whether it was out of personal pique or just a bad coincidence, McCain’s voting record veered to the left for a few years after the bruising primary loss to George W. Bush. But Republican voters nevertheless rewarded McCain for waiting his turn, however unhappily, and delivered him the nomination. McCain ended up repudiating most of his more liberal positions during the course of the campaign, but the damage was already done. McCain had little value as a spokesman for either the Bush tax cuts or immigration enforcement, and he remained committed to a campaign-finance reform law that threatened to silence many conservative groups.
There was little conservative enthusiasm for George H. W. Bush and even less for Dole, but McCain was actively loathed by many grassroots conservatives. The fact that he was able to win the nomination anyway revealed some inconvenient truths about the modern Republican Party: the weakness of the conservative bench, divisions in the conservative GOP primary vote, a possible disconnect between some movement leaders and ordinary Republican voters. It was also a reminder that the GOP’s tradition of anointing the heir apparent is very strong.
REPUBLICANS WERE POORLY SERVED by this tradition last time around, but at least that was an election where the GOP’s chances were remote to begin with. Given the economy, Bush’s unpopularity, the length of the two wars, and the media’s sustained love affair with Obama, it would have taken a flawless Republican campaign to win in 2008. Republicans do stand a chance in 2012 — if they take care to nominate the right candidate.
It would help, for instance, to have a candidate who can credibly exploit Obama’s vulnerabilities. Aside from the tax cuts, most of the issues on which McCain deviated from the party line were not central to the 2008 campaign. Since being bitten by the presidential bug around 2006, Romney has tried to put himself on the right side of most conservative litmus tests. But the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout of Wall Street will be a defining question of the 2012 elections — it was a foundational issue in the genesis of the Tea Party — and Romney supported it.
Romney had plenty of company in this. Not only did the Bush administration and most of the Republican congressional leadership back TARP, but so did conservative standouts like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). But in nearly every Republican primary where TARP was an issue in 2010, the anti-bailout candidate prevailed. Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah — whom Romney endorsed — couldn’t overcome his TARP vote even with an 83.6 American Conservative Union rating.