Mitt Romney ran about as impressive a campaign as he could have under the circumstances. Romney turned out to be a terrific debater, a champion fundraiser and a man of impressive self-restraint. Toward the end, when it became clear he could win but was still in fact losing, he resisted the natural temptation to go vicious and low. He ought to get credit for that. Plus he gave a dignified concession speech.
But it was a flawed candidacy from the start. Romney’s caution and ever-shifting policy positions made him seem fearful, which is to say weak. His biography hurt him. During a cycle when voters remained angry at Wall Street, Romney bore the weight of a finance background. And because of his own history in Massachusetts, he could never effectively go after President Obama on Obamacare, the president’s biggest political weakness.
None of this was ever a secret, but the Republicans nominated Romney anyway. They had no choice. The alternatives were unacceptable.
How did this happen? All over Washington, bruised Republican politicos are nursing Bloody Marys and debating that very question. Mostly they’re attacking each other: the establishment wing of the Republican Party vs. its conservative, tea party-affiliated grassroots. That debate will soon burst into public view, and in the end one side may prevail. But the truth is, both sides are guilty.
Washington insiders who were part of the recent big-spending, pork-barrel earmarking, lobbyist-hugging, massive-growth-in-government period in our history still lead the establishment wing of the Republican Party. This is the group that added a massive Medicare Part D entitlement without paying for it, bailed out Wall Street bankers without making them pay for it, and micromanaged state and local education efforts. For a party based on limited government and budgetary discipline, behavior like this is death. Their fiscal incontinence infuriated the base of the party and led directly to the tea party movement.
And despite much lip service to the contrary, they haven’t changed. The establishment wing has proved to be totally uncommitted to real fiscal discipline. Last year, for example, with the country facing more than a $1 trillion annual budget deficit, Speaker John Boehner touted a $38 billion spending cut as a great victory. After accounting for all the usual accounting gimmicks, Boehner’s plan didn’t even amount to $38 billion in cuts.
A year later, the debt limit deal worked out by Mitch McConnell, Boehner and Eric Cantor was even more grotesque. President Obama received the debt increase he needed to get him through the election. In return, the public got a sequester that hits military spending much harder than the entitlements that are responsible for our budget crisis. Even Paul Ryan’s much-touted budget doesn’t bring spending into balance until the year 2040. It’s pretty hard to pretend any of this is impressive, much less conservative.
After years of mediocre performance, the leaders of the GOP’s establishment wing need to reconsider why they’re in Washington. It’s fun to lead a political party. The perks are great. But if you don’t actually believe in balanced budgets, or don’t have the stomach to fight for them, you probably shouldn’t be running the Republican Party. Maybe it’s time to head home and do something useful with your life.