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.
The conservative wing of the GOP feels morally superior to the establishment wing, and for good reason. If nothing else, most tea party activists are sincere people. A lot of them are also naive. Politics is hard. So is governing. Having the correct principles is not enough. To win elections, you need smart candidates. To govern, you need politicians who can cut deals that serve their principles.
But first you need to win. Candidates who are too bored by policy even to read the newspaper aren’t likely to impress voters. Candidates so verbally inept they can’t talk about abortion without appearing to endorse rape usually don’t win big elections. Conservatives need candidates who can persuade. America isn’t getting any more conservative. It’s no longer sufficient to recite bumper stickers about American exceptionalism and bow to Reagan’s memory, if it ever was. You have to make the case to the unconvinced. Somewhere along the way, many conservative activists forgot how.
The tea party believes the GOP establishment is ideologically corrupt. They’re right. But replacing the current leadership with obviously unqualified buffoons is no remedy. Republicans have lost at least five winnable Senate races in the last two cycles because they fielded candidates whose only real qualification was being anti-establishment. Many will argue the GOP can only win going forward with more liberal candidates. That’s not true. But the genuine conservatives they find will have to come with political skills, policy smarts and impressive resumes in order to get elected.
The sad truth is that even if the Republican Party did all this — sent its current leaders home and stopped nominating losers — it still wouldn’t be enough. The country is changing too fast. Most people have the sense that America is different demographically from what it was 20 years ago. But unless they’ve been reading the latest census data, they have no real idea. The changes are that profound. They’re also permanent and likely to accelerate. In order to remain competitive outside Utah, the GOP will have to win new voters, and soon.
That’s the Republican reformation plan, Stage B. They may get there. First they’ll have to tackle the basics, like finding fresh leadership and candidates who aren’t embarrassing.