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Trying to Be Mr. Right

Mitt Romney’s quest for conservative acceptance.

By From the June 2012 issue

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MITT ROMNMEY ENDURED MONTHS of slings and arrows from his Republican primary opponents as he persevered to the nomination, but his success in November may depend on refuting Bonnie Raitt. One of the singer-songwriter’s early 1990s comeback hits was a sad, slow song called “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The ballad was inspired by a news report about a man who had been arrested for shooting at his girlfriend’s car. At his trial he informed the judge, “I learned, Your Honor, that you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.”

That may well be true of a woman, but what about a political party? While Romney isn’t likely to do anything as rash as the jilted lover behind the song, he could definitely use some of the GOP’s love to go along with its presidential nomination. A March Gallup poll tells the story: only 35 percent of Republicans said they were “enthusiastic” about Romney and fully 19 percent said they would either vote for Barack Obama or stay at home on election day.

Four years earlier, Gallup found that 47 percent of Republicans described themselves as enthusiastic about John McCain while 14 percent said they would either vote for Obama or sit on their hands in the general election. Before a woman from Wasilla, Alaska, came to his aid, McCain was thought to be about as bad as it could get from the perspective of Republican base enthusiasm. Yet his numbers pre-Sarah Palin were better than Romney’s now.

Even as Romney racked up primary victories, the exit polls showed cause for concern. Evangelicals and Tea Party sympathizers, as well as Republicans looking for a “true conservative,” regularly voted against him, sometimes in large numbers. In some Southern states where such voters are a majority of the GOP primary electorate, Romney finished third. In Iowa, only 1 percent of caucus-goers who preferred a true conservative voted for Romney, a sixth place showing—and that’s in a state he was initially believed to have won.

Romney’s campaign skills improved as the primaries went on, but the process unfolded in a way that deepened this conservative discontent. Romney’s main challengers were strong enough to keep him from wrapping up the nomination early, but too weak to genuinely threaten his frontrunner status. The result was that conservatives who preferred Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or Ron Paul were constantly reminded that they disliked Romney yet were impotent to stop him.

THERE IS ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE old habits will die hard. Evangelical and Tea Party activists say privately that there is little enthusiasm for Romney among their supporters. Endorsements from prominent conservative figures, ranging from Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (the latter a potential Romney running mate), emphasize the imperative of defeating Obama above Romney’s own merits.

“The tea party is not going to coalesce around Romney,” Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips bluntly told the Daily Caller. “Most of us will vote for Romney, but we will not be out there with signs for him or in his campaign.” Surveys on the Tea Party Nation website suggested that 25 percent might not even vote for the Republican nominee. That number probably won’t hold—remember the polls showing Republican-turned-Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr winning 6 to 10 percent of the vote in 2008?—but there may be a domino effect.

Voters who normally give money to Republican campaigns may only volunteer. People who volunteer may only vote. Generally reliable GOP voters may stay home. This matters because 2012 may be shaping up to be like 2004. The electorate was ready to part with the incumbent president (George W. Bush) if the opposition party could present a credible alternative, but the American people weren’t necessarily hell bent on changing course. What resulted was a closely fought election in which each party worked to turn out its base.

Bush was able to squeak through to a second term, but John Kerry only needed to do slightly better to win. Three out of every four votes for Bush were cast by white evangelicals. Romney will likely get a comparable percentage of the evangelical vote, but can he reproduce anything like their 2004 turnout? “While he will get close to three quarters of those evangelicals who do turn out to vote,” predicted RedState.com’s Erick Erickson, “he must ensure they do turn out.”

ALL IS NOT LOST, HOWEVER. Obama must also replicate an unprecedented past performance: he’ll need turnout among minorities and younger voters to approach the levels of four years ago. He also needs to carry the youth vote by the same margins as when he was a fresh face with no responsibility for the dismal post-collegiate jobs market. This basic political arithmetic is what reduced the leader of the free world to pandering to college students. Obama has been traveling to campuses in swing states and leading the coeds in chants of “Don’t double my rate!” (This battle cry was in reference to a pending Stafford loan rate hike.)

Remember James Carville’s line about the economy, stupid? In the first quarter of 2012, it grew by just 2.2 percent. The Obama stimulus package was supposed to have produced 4 percent annual growth by now. Instead GDP grew by 1.7 percent in 2011 and is likely to expand by less than 3 percent this year. In the first quarter of 1992, when Carville helped Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush by running against the “worst economy in fifty years,” the economy grew by 4.5 percent. What if the country continues along this path for the rest of the year? “If you plug those numbers into the forecasting model created by Ray Fair of Yale University,” writes the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis, “Obama would get just 48.4 percent of the two-party vote, a decisive loss to Mitt Romney.”

Even if the economy picks up, Obama is no sure thing. He won 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008. That was with the advantages of a nearly flawless campaign, a floundering opponent, an unpopular Republican incumbent, a fawning news media, and no record of his own. With the political climate transformed radically, it is not unreasonable to assume—as even most favorable polls suggest—that Obama will get a smaller percentage this time around. That gives the president little margin for error.

INDEPENDENTS WILL NATURALLY be critical for both candidates, and Obama will be hard pressed to duplicate his 2008 showing among swing voters. But Romney will still have to solve, or at least mitigate, his base problem. McCain did so by choosing Palin as his running mate. Few Republicans in Washington think Romney will go this route. That’s not Romney’s temperament, and he is said to be sensitive to the perception that the Palin pick ultimately backfired. Romney is also starting out with better election prospects than McCain, so it is early to throw a Hail Mary pass.

Romney reached out to conservative organizations and institutions before launching his first presidential campaign. (Ironically, the Massachusetts health care plan that loomed as such a large problem this time around was at least partially a result of that outreach.) He will do so again, now that other more movement-friendly alternatives are out of the way. But last time this strategy produced only limited results with grassroots conservatives. Endorsements from popular radio talk show hosts and magazines like National Review failed to establish him as the undisputed conservative alternative to McCain. Relatively little of that appeal seemed to carry over to his second campaign, when he was the candidate of choice for many former McCain voters.

Maybe it had something to do with Romney’s technique. While wooing the right during his first presidential campaign, Romney often came on too strong. He positioned himself as the “three legged stool,” a full-spectrum conservative on economic, social, and national security issues, which filled a vacuum in the GOP field but didn’t comport well with his Massachusetts record. Appealing to gun owners, Romney talked about being a “rodent and rabbit hunter,” having “hunted those kinds of varmints…more than two times” since he was fifteen.

Romney touted the support of a Massachusetts pro-life group whose endorsement he had denied accepting just five years earlier while running for governor. When Sen. Sam Brownback pointed out that this pro-choice history was captured neatly on YouTube, Romney scolded the pro-life standout: “I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they’ve been pro-life longer than I have.”

Whether it stemmed from rejection or just recognition that he needed a different kind of primary voter, Romney has been cooler to conservatives in his second run. In fact, some movement voices complained that the frontrunner didn’t reach out more. “He needs to reach out to every one of us who’s sitting at this table, and to all the other conservative leaders throughout the United States to make sure he’s not just speaking to a few select groups, that he’s speaking to the grass roots,” said Idaho GOP Congressman Raul Labrador, according to Boise’s Spokesman-Review.

Others insist that Romney needs to give conservatives a place at the table—via jobs in his administration. “Yes, Romney has held numerous meetings with conservative leaders and some meetings with past or present Republican presidential opponents,” writes Matt Towery in Newsmax. “The problem is that he reportedly never offers any hope of their being part of his campaign, much less part of a potential Romney presidential administration.”

ROMNEY DOES NEED to give conservatives a stake in his administration, but not necessarily by promising jobs for the lads. His first step was embracing the fiscal course charted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan—far less tentatively than many of his reputedly more conservative primary opponents. Ryan responded with surprisingly enthusiastic support for Romney in the Wisconsin primary and beyond. Ryan is often discussed as a possible Romney running mate, but that misses the point. As long as Romney is willing to publicly back Ryan’s plans for transforming Medicare into a premium support system, the Democrats will make Ryan his running mate no matter who the Republicans actually nominate for vice president in Tampa.

Keepers of the conventional wisdom tend to focus on the downside of such a Romney-Ryan pairing: it leaves the GOP ticket vulnerable to Democratic “Mediscare” tactics, which could repel senior citizens and some swing voters. Even some conservatives worry that only Ryan can effectively defend his budget proposals. A Tea Party senator complained to this writer that Ryan’s Medicare plan can be explained in an article, but not at campaign sound bite length.

The upside is that backing Ryan ties Romney to a comprehensive conservative domestic agenda. It’s true that even some grassroots conservatives still need convincing on the question of entitlement reform. Delusions that foreign aid makes up a bigger portion of the federal budget than Medicare die hard. But Ryan’s Path to Prosperity draws a sharp contrast with Obama, putting Romney on the side of less spending and taxes plus much smaller deficits over the long term.

Ronald Reagan borrowed the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda from Congress when he came out for the Kemp-Roth tax cut. Reagan had raised taxes to close budget deficits as governor of California; Barry Goldwater had voted against the Kennedy-Johnson tax cuts as a senator in the 1960s. Just as Reagan became a convert to supply-side economics by signing Jack Kemp’s ideas into law, Romney can shed his reputation for timidity and become the face of free-market entitlement reform by doing the same for Paul Ryan’s.

THE DEBATE BETWEEN Obama’s budget, which projects deficits as far as the eye can see and couldn’t get a single vote from either party in Congress, and Ryan’s, which passed the full House and reduces the long-term debt to sustainable levels, provides Romney another opportunity. His economic adviser Glenn Hubbard calculates that paying for the president’s promises would require an across-the-board tax increase of 11 percent on people making less than $200,000 a year. The fact that Obama’s budget numbers don’t add up without a middle-class tax increase suggests a possibility besides presidential innumeracy: maybe such a tax increase is in the cards.

It’s not exactly a farfetched conspiracy theory. When the Bush tax cuts were first set to expire at the end of 2010, Obama asked Congress to let them lapse for upper-income earners. Congressional Republicans, fortified by that year’s elections, demanded that the tax cuts be preserved in full. Obama signed into law a compromise passed by the lame-duck Congress that kept all the Bush-era individual tax rates in place, but promised he wouldn’t extend the higher-level tax cuts again.

That compromise was just a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts, which will now expire again in 2013. Obama again says he wants to keep them only for the middle class. But this time, he will be safely reelected when he must make his choice. If Republicans fail to pass a bill extending only the middle-class tax cuts, Obama may let all the tax cuts expire and blame GOP intransigence. “The advantage of this strategy is that it would yield a lot of deficit reduction without the need to get any legislation through Congress,” writes Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg View. “It is thus more achievable than other deficit-reduction plans.” The disadvantages include that this surprise tax hike would be totally mendacious and economically counterproductive. If Romney can make the electorate see this as a real possibility—admittedly no sure thing—he can appeal to both conservatives and swing voters.

OBAMA CAN ALSO HELP Romney solve his problem of either overreaching in his pursuit of conservatives or appearing to neglect them entirely. Polls have shown Republicans were least sold on Romney when the nomination race seemed unsettled. Satisfaction with him as the nominee has generally improved in the absence of plausible alternatives. Now the only alternative will be Obama.

A Pew Research Center survey released between Santorum and Gingrich’s departure from the race showed 88 percent of Republicans who voted against Romney in the primaries saying they would support him in the general election.

Romney generally won’t have to try as hard to appear more conservative than Obama. He also won’t have anyone trying to outbid him for conservative support. The Constitution Party has nominated a former congressman for president and the Libertarian Party looks set to choose a former governor, but there is little in either party’s electoral track record to suggest they will emerge as a serious threat in a genuinely winnable race.

Obama will try to blur the ideological distinctions by trying to look tougher on Osama bin Laden than Romney while also bringing up the Massachusetts health care plan. But after four years, the president is pretty well defined in the eyes of conservative voters, who will be as faithful as their options. Candidates like Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry were able to make the Bushes look like titans of conservatism.

Before Romney even faces off against Obama,

he will probably face one last obstacle to his right. Ron Paul faded after the earlier primaries, but his campaign has rebounded somewhat at the state conventions and caucuses as the GOP race headed into the homestretch. Paul seems to have accumulated enough delegates to be a real presence at the Republican National Convention. The Paul supporters could embarrass the frontrunner, and Romney desperately wants their votes. But if the 12-term congressman’s youthful activists (many of whom are outspokenly antiwar) become disruptive, that could also rally old-line conservatives in Tampa behind Romney.

THERE IS LITTLE Romney can do at this point about the facts in his record or biography that bother some conservatives. But many of his biggest problems are not of his making. For a critical mass of conservatives, having to vote for McCain in 2008 was a painful experience. The situation was made even worse when the supposedly electable candidate for whom they were settling didn’t come particularly close to winning. Many of those conservatives promised themselves, “Never again.”

Fast forward to 2010 when conservatives enjoyed great success in the Republican primaries. In Senate races alone, Tea Partiers beat establishment candidates in primaries in Kentucky, Utah, Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist were chased out of the party entirely. To be sure, some of those candidates lost their elections just like McCain did in 2008; Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski snuck back in as a write-in candidate after losing her primary. But conservatives didn’t have to settle anymore.

Conservatives became a discriminating lot. It wasn’t just Romney getting hit for being a Massachusetts moderate. Gingrich was facing questions about the policies he supported after leaving the speakership, with some conservatives asking if he should instead remain on the couch with Nancy Pelosi. Santorum faced scrutiny over his votes for the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind, drawing scorn when he said he was just being a team player. In years past, either man’s conservative credentials might have been accepted uncritically.

The right isn’t heading into this year’s elections with as many exhilarating primary wins as two years ago (the presidential contest certainly included). Some Republicans would say that is for the better, since inexperienced Tea Party candidates lost several winnable races in the last election. But many conservatives want to love their nominee as much as they loved Reagan, a level of enthusiasm that might come in handy when running against a president who inspires nearly cult-like devotion from his followers. And that is the enthusiasm gap with which Romney must work.

Romney may have one trump card that McCain didn’t, however: Obama isn’t as adored as he was four years ago. As much as the president’s men want to make this a contest between the cool candidate and the square, there is now a larger slice of the electorate seeking non-hipster normalcy. So forget Bonnie Raitt. What Romney really needs is for voters to think of him and agree with Bruce Springsteen (maybe Chris Christie can teach him the words): “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright/Oh and that’s alright with me.”

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.