It's Obama, Stupid: GOP Will Rally for Romney (or Whomever)

It's Obama, Stupid: GOP Will Rally for Romney (or Whomever)

By David Paul Kuhn - December 18, 2011

In politics, the antagonist of voters' antagonist is their hero. Newt Gingrich leads Republicans in national polls for the same reason Mitt Romney would rally Republicans in a general election: Barack Obama.

The Republican race is defined by seeming imponderables. How could a kingpin of D.C. insiders, a twice-divorced pol who led the charge against a presidential philanderer while himself philandering, take the lead in the party of Tea Party insurgents and social conservatives? And yet, how could the candidate who leaves conservatives so discouraged they’d actually back Gingrich ever unite conservatives in a general election?

Gingrich took the lead because he takes it to Obama and to a lesser degree that perennial conservative bête noir -- the media. Conservatives ache for a right-wing pugilist. For now, at least, Gingrich is the candidate of the Republican id.

That id has hit Romney hard. He can no longer claim the front-runner mantle. Yet if Romney pulls it out and wins the primary, Republicans will rally behind him.

Deaniacs backed John Kerry. Hillary’s die-hards embraced Obama. And no matter what they say now, the Gingrich faddists will stand with Romney if he is the Republican standing against Obama.

Protagonists are often overestimated in politics. The liberal Netroots was credited with Democrats’ resurgence in 2006. The Tea Party movement was credited with conservatives’ comeback last year. Both midterm blowouts were fundamentally reactions to the party in power. The Tea Party possibly peaked in November 2010. Yet exit polls found even then that only 22 percent of the electorate said “one reason” for their vote was to “send a message” that’s “in favor of the Tea Party movement.” By comparison, 37 percent of voters said they were expressing “opposition” to Obama. And Obama was not even on the ballot.

But Obama will be next year. Thus, more than six in 10 Republicans are enthusiastic about voting for president (really against this president) compared to less than half of Democrats in key swing states, according to Gallup. Democrats know the identity of their candidate. Republicans do not. But Republicans know who they oppose.

This is why the political press need not obsess over Romney’s supposed ceiling. The oft-noted statistic: Romney has never attracted more than a quarter of the GOP electorate to him. And so we watch rank-and-file Republicans jump from anti-Romney vessel to anti-Romney vessel (Donald Trump, Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, Herman Cain). Gingrich could easily sink like those before him. His record could prove too much baggage for any ship. Yet if he wins the nomination, his problem will not be partisans. GOP voters will climb aboard with Gingrich, as they will with Romney, regardless of what we hear and read.

“Many conservatives and Tea Partiers would be unlikely to vote for Romney in the general election,” wrote veteran conservative activist Richard Viguerie last month. Prominent conservative blogger Erick Erickson declared, “Conservatives will not rally together with the least of the bad alternatives.” And even George Will -- who should know better (and one suspects he does) -- wrote that should Romney win the nomination, conservatives “will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming.”

Yet Obama has proven quite adept at inflaming Republican passions himself. Conservatives understandably hesitate to lift up a man who passed the pilot for the largest entitlement expansion in four decades (health care reform) and is shown on video as recently as 2002 describing his views as “progressive.”

But many already have done just that. Recall February 2008. Romney’s moderation was more contemporary. The hard right did not view Obama in today’s harsh light. And there was Romney on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The right was rallying to him as the anti-McCain. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham introduced Romney as “the conservative's conservative.” Yet Romney decided to be the good soldier and bow out. There were cries of “nooo” and “fight on.” The room felt suddenly punctured and many conservatives’ hopes with it.

Today, Romney is in the role as the flawed establishment candidate. These candidates usually survive their “anybody but” challenges. John McCain, John Kerry, George W. Bush and Al Gore did, like front-runners before them. This president was a rare, if only partial, exception. Candidate Obama wielded establishment support from Edward Kennedy to Kerry.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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