Conservative doubts still haunt Romney

Aaron Guerrero Contributor
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Sooner or later the bubble had to pop.

Mitt Romney has had a pretty swell time of it in 2010. The former presidential contender has been ambidextrous in his political maneuvers, carefully challenging President Obama on key economic issues that play to his own strengths as a pragmatic technocrat. The success generated by his book No Apology earlier this year seemed to verify his place as the GOP’s resident wonk. The book even won praise from detractors as a thoughtful policy manifesto. As Republicans rode a wave of voter dissatisfaction towards taking back the House, Romney faithfully played the role of good soldier, being generous in word and wealth to GOP candidates all over the map who enlisted his help, all the while building a collection of chits likely to come in handy for what is an all but sure presidential run in 2012.

But for all the political success Romney had in 2010, it’s clear that heading into 2011 he still has not persuaded conservatives that he is heartfelt and sincere in championing their cause.

Take, for instance, the simmering debate over the Bush tax cuts. Romney’s last-minute op-ed in the pages of USA Today announcing his opposition to the compromise reached by Obama and congressional Republicans triggered a familiar line of attacks from his GOP brethren and the conservative commentariat. Some scolded him for doing what was politically expedient, others dismissed his high-profile denunciation as nothing more than an opportunistic play for some Tea Party love.

All things considered, it seemed the smart political calculus. Previous support of policies like TARP and the potent charge that his Massachusetts healthcare program served as the template for Obama’s signature legislative achievement has left Romney in a defensive posture when trying to tout his conservative credentials to the grassroots of the GOP. And being too ideologically close with the president on another critical issue could have proven fatal down the road, prompting conservatives to turn their backs on him for good.

Still, the tax-cut fiasco reminded many conservatives of what they didn’t like about Romney to begin with: he’s all pander and no principle. Worse yet, even when he tows the ultra-conservative line, he still manages to get accused by those he’s trying to please of being calculating and slick. It’s a level of distrust with conservatives that no other candidate faces.

As the GOP frets over what the Tea Party effect will be on their traditionally orderly nomination process, it’s easy to imagine some alarm bells going off in Romney World. If the GOP primary electorate is destined to be more conservative next time around, and if recent polls are accurate, then it’s fair to say that conservatives in general aren’t the least bit thrilled about, or for that matter very open to, the prospect of him carrying their banner.

Romney’s chief political challenge over the next year will be to find a plausible path that reconciles his strained relations with conservatives and convinces them once and for all that he is a true believer in the things they hold most dear. He has impressed most moderates and independents with his business background and past experience as a problem-solving GOP governor in a deep-blue state. Unfortunately for him, the GOP nomination won’t be decided by centrist voters; rather, it will be decided by rock-ribbed conservatives who are itching for an ideological war with Obama on the national stage.

How the former governor woos over conservative skeptics is still an open question. The temptation to take hyper-partisan positions during the primary season will be difficult to resist, particularly if it’s a successful recipe that helps other candidates move upward in the polls. But he will have to fight the urge. Passing himself off as the model conservative didn’t sell well in 2008 and it isn’t likely to fare any better in a 2012 market heavily populated by Tea Party types.

If Romney is still unsettled on a New Year’s resolution, here’s a suggestion: hope that conservatives warm up to you more in 2011 than they did in 2010.

Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.