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Front-Runner Failure

The early anointment of Mitt Romney or any other presidential candidate will repeat a common GOP mistake. 

By From the March 2011 issue

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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.

Having a pro-bailout Republican as titular head of the party already proved disastrous in 2008, when McCain passed up his last chance to make the presidential contest competitive by signing on to TARP. It will serve the GOP no better next year, when Republicans will be dependent on the grassroots enthusiasm of Tea Party activists who deem the $700 billion bailout an unconstitutional betrayal of principle.

Romney has tried to square this circle by saying he supported the Bush version of TARP, in which the federal government was supposed to buy up troubled assets, rather than the Obama version. "Secretary Paulson's TARP prevented a systemic collapse of the national financial system," he writes in his pre-campaign book No Apologies. "Secretary Geithner's TARP became an opaque, heavy-handed, expensive slush fund. It should be shut down."

This is a politically untenable position. First, it was always likely that TARP would become an expensive slush fund. The measure lacked both accountability and any clarity as to how it was going to achieve its stated purpose from the very beginning. But more importantly, Romney ignores the real arguments against the bailout -- based on opportunity cost and moral hazard -- and accepts the establishment insistence that TARP averted a systemic financial collapse. Reduced to haggling over details, this essentially concedes a crucial debate to Obama.

And not for the last time. There will be no bigger issue in the 2012 presidential election than the national health care law signed by Obama. If Republicans wind up with unified control of the government, repealing that law will be their top priority. The window for doing so may be small -- by 2014, new subsidies and benefits will kick in, building a constituency for the law based on self-interest rather than just ideology -- and failure could well doom the entire conservative project of preventing the United States from becoming a full-blown European-style welfare state.

THERE'S JUST ONE PROBLEM: the Massachusetts health care bill Romney signed into law -- and for which he continues to take credit -- is virtually indistinguishable from ObamaCare. Both plans mandate that individuals purchase health insurance. Both provide government subsidies for people to buy government-approved insurance policies from government-run exchanges. Both expand existing government health care programs.

Jonathan Gruber, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology health care economist who advised both Romney and Obama, told the Wall Street Journal, "If any one person in the world deserves credit for where we are now, it's Mitt Romney....He designed the structure of the federal bill." The Obama team is well aware of the similarities. Before the bill passed, White House political adviser David Axelrod argued: "We're just trying to give the rest of America the same opportunities that the people of Massachusetts have."

Obama has made this argument himself. "You know, you've got a former governor of Massachusetts who's running around saying ‘What's this health reform bill?'" the president joked at a Boston fundraiser before the bill became law. "And I keep on scratching my head and I say, boy, this Massachusetts thing, who designed that?" Obama so looks forward to campaigning against Romney on this issue that he told CBS News that ObamaCare is "the sort of plan proposed by current Republican nominee Mitt Romney."

Romney isn't the Republican nominee yet. But there is little question that if he were, it would set back the movement to repeal ObamaCare. By simultaneously criticizing the new federal law and taking credit for the similar Massachusetts law, Romney is walking a difficult tightrope -- one some of his own public comments suggest may be impossible. Consider this bit from New Hampshire, as quoted by the New York Times: "[Obama is] saying that I was the guy that came up with the idea for what he did," Romney said. "If ever again somewhere down the road I would be debating him, I would be happy to take credit for his accomplishment."

Romney is on record supporting repeal, though his political action committee -- committed to supporting "candidates who will repeal the worst aspects of ObamaCare" -- was a little more ambiguous. His efforts to reconcile these two positions are reminiscent of his TARP tergiversations. First he blames the Democrats in the state legislature for "the worst aspects" of RomneyCare. But Romney still signed the bill, with Ted Kennedy and the Beacon Hill Democratic leadership at his side. In this, Romney sounds like the Democrats who voted for the Iraq war resolution and then professed shock that it resulted in a war. Two of these Democrats, John Kerry and John Edwards, proved pretty inept at running against the Iraq war during the 2004 presidential campaign.

There's also an appeal to federalism: RomneyCare was a state experiment while ObamaCare is a one-size-fits-all federal policy. This argument worked for Scott Brown in last year's special election for U.S. Senate. But it will be harder to advance in a presidential contest, especially since the individual mandate -- a core component of both plans -- has become central to the constitutional challenges against ObamaCare. You could argue that RomneyCare's individual mandate is toothless compared to ObamaCare's, but then you would have to acknowledge the extent to which Massachusetts increased enrollment in Medicaid, a federal program.

To most voters' ears, the blogger Daniel Larison is probably right that these arguments will sound like the following: "we will never yield in our opposition to the outrageously irresponsible and unaffordable federal bill, and we will defend the outrageously irresponsible and unaffordable Massachusetts bill to the death!" The bigger problem is that Romney was hardly alone in embracing ideas he would now like to repeal. David Frum correctly observed that ObamaCare "builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to ClintonCare in 1993-1994." That's a lot harder to justify on the basis of federalism, unless conservatives and Republicans make a clean break from their past record of advocating ObamaCare Lite.

On Hugh Hewitt's radio program, Karl Rove recently advised Romney to recognize that the fact that "what they did in Massachusetts looks so much like what Obama tried to do to the country" is a political problem. But the solution isn't obvious. Disavowing the Massachusetts law would deprive Romney of a major policy accomplishment. It would also add to the growing list of flip-flops that prevented him from consolidating the anti-McCain vote in 2008. The clips of him confidently supporting RomneyCare -- even proclaiming "I like mandates, the mandates worked" -- will be replayed as endlessly as his emphatic promises to Bay State voters that he was pro-choice on abortion.

PERHAPS ROMNEY WILL be able to change the subject to jobs and the economy. The official unemployment rate will probably be at least 8 percent by the time Obama faces the voters, and might well be higher (it's currently hovering around 10 percent). Unlike Obama, Romney has a real record of creating private-sector jobs and understanding business. But as Ted Kennedy demonstrated in his 1994 reelection campaign, Romney's private-sector background is a double-edged sword.

Romney's venture capital firm, Bain, saved companies and jobs, but its leveraged buyouts frequently led to layoffs. Facing a strong challenge from Romney, Kennedy flooded Massachusetts' airwaves with these workers' tales. "I'd like him to show me where these 10,000 jobs that he created are," said one former American Pad & Paper employee. Another looked into the camera and warned voters: "I'd like to say to the people of Massachusetts: ‘If you think it can't happen to you, think again. We thought it wouldn't happen here, either.'"

These attacks were unfair. Romney had already taken leave from Bain Capital by the time the American Pad & Paper layoffs took place. But given the nature of Romney's business, there will be more stories where these came from. The point is that Romney won't have a clear path to running as an economy-saver and job-creator. Big business is as unpopular with voters as big government.

There is, of course, a case to be made for Romney as well. He is smart and accomplished, with a more varied practical background than Obama. From Bain to the Winter Olympics, he has turned around troubled financial entities before. To those who argue his business record isn't applicable to politics, Romney could point to his success at balancing Massachusetts' budget and getting unpopular cuts to local aid passed.

The strongest argument may be that the other Republican front-runners -- Huckabee, Palin, Gingrich -- have obvious flaws as well. Yet that may be an argument for something more radical, at least by Republican standards: abandon the hierarchal nomination habits and look far beyond the top tier. A major party presidential nomination during troubled times isn't a retirement gift. 

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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.