After Foisting Romney on Base, GOP Elites Now Start to Gripe

After Foisting Romney on Base, GOP Elites Now Start to Gripe

By Benjamin Domenech - September 24, 2012

One of the most interesting aspects of the 2012 election is how the tea party movement has proven more politically mature than the center-right’s self-styled elites, and those who spent much of the Republican primary season chiding swathes of people for being insufficiently pragmatic have turned out to be far more childish than the conservative base.

For the past several weeks, Mitt Romney has been surrounded by critics from the DC-Manhattan elite who’ve denounced him for a lackluster, unfocused campaign, teeing off on Team Romney in the wake of the 47 percent comments for a number of issues—but mostly, in my read, from failing to take their advice. Romney’s defenders, meanwhile, have been many of the same individuals who spent the primary season torching him in effigy as the encapsulation of everything they hate about the Republican ruling class. For months the elites bashed the base for failing to suck it up and see the big picture, to line up for Romney and come on in for the big win. But they got their wish!

The tea party movement—once again proving its pragmatism once the general election season rolls around—lined up in the immediate aftermath of the Paul Ryan pick and has proven they can grow up. Professional concern troll David Frum, who spent most of the primary season telling liberals why conservatives were never going to suck it up and go for Romney, now seems very concerned that they have.  Michelle Malkin, who could be taking the wood to Romney on a daily basis for his infidelity to the immigration hardline, has morphed into a loyal soldier while Peggy Noonan is calling for Romney to bring in the 82-year-old Jim Baker to rescue his campaign (yes, really). Ann Romney seems a bit perturbed about this.

The roles of all these figures have completely reversed. Why is this happening? A number of reasons, but chief among them that the tea party movement just wants to beat Obama—they understand that as a necessary first step before continuing any of their internal battles on policy grounds. In contrast, while most insiders want to win, they value the importance of winning on their own terms. The tea partiers could be freaking out about any number of things from Romney.  Heck, his re-endorsement of Romneycare in the past few weeks barely got a peep.  They've largely sucked it up, making peace with the idea that they’ll have to keep him honest if he gets to the White House.

But consider the criticism from those center-right elites over Romney’s failure to mention Afghanistan in his convention speech. Those who long for Bush III, dissatisfied with rise of a more libertarian base, took Romney for the block in the primary. Now it’s become evident that Romney isn’t running to be Bush III in most policy arenas—he has his own class of insiders, his own establishment, many of whom are his friends and colleagues from business, not from politics.

The gripes from Bush-era foreign policy types is also an indication of how much they prioritize those issues over Romney’s own bias toward domestic policy fixes—his failure to mount a defense of the Freedom Agenda is a cause of significant frustration from those still fighting the last wars. There’s a bit of the spurned sweetheart effect here, too—the insider class and the opinion leaders view Romney as owing them to some extent for their willingness to line up quickly to pronounce Rick Perry unacceptable—but it’s now clear their support for Romney is mostly unrequited. While the DC-Manhattan folks think their megaphones are valuable, Romney himself doesn’t seem to think so. They just end up complaining about being invited to conference calls no one in Boston listens too, writing white papers that the candidate never reads, writing speeches the candidate scraps.

This is a broad brush, of course, but the Ryan pick illustrates the division over priorities and tactics between Romney and the establishment elites. The choice of Ryan was particularly satisfying to the fiscal conservative base and ignited tea partiers, but it’s now clear many insiders would've preferred a more foreign policy focused pick (Condi Rice) or a safer pick who does well with the money (Rob Portman). This sets up the storyline the elites will try to make stick should Romney lose. In November, the insider spin after a Romney loss will likely be: “The country wasn't ready for Paul Ryan's big ideas, they should've played it safe and gone with Portman.” In this, they may be in agreement with Stuart Stevens—they may even be right, tactically (though the evidence really isn’t there yet).  But they’d also be extremely short-sighted as to their own future influence.

There will be very negative consequences for a Romney loss for the power of center-right elites who are largely viewed as foisting him on the base despite the latter’s objections. A Romney loss almost certainly pushes the 2016 nominee rightward, and I doubt the megaphones will be powerful enough to frame the 2012 contest, as they did in 2008, as one where the conservative Veep choice dragged down the ticket.

Like it or not, the money and opinion elites on the center-right own Romney’s failure from the perspective of the base—they need him to win. And the reality is that if Romney loses, it will have little if anything to do with Paul Ryan’s big ideas, tactical choices, or elite misgivings—and far more to do with the simple fact that Romney is still disliked by most voters. Romney’s ceiling is much lower than other candidates because of this, and he’s never shown the political ability to overcome it by changing people’s opinions. That is a rare skill: the only presidential candidate in the modern era to come back from being upside down in favorability ratings to win was Bill Clinton. Romney is no Clinton. 

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.

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