We now approach the third month in what was supposed to be a two-week primary campaign. Mitt Romney had been the establishment’s favorite all along—he had the money and the campaign infrastructure to nearly win Iowa and cruise to victory in New Hampshire. And despite his inability to win over the Republican base, Romney left New Hampshire—a state he entered as only the "presumptive frontrunner"—as the virtual nominee. It was a matter of when, not if, Romney would win the nomination.
New Hampshire now seems like ancient history. Weeks away from Super Tuesday, Romney trails in national polls and in his home state of Michigan. He lost the only "must-win" state in Republican presidential politics—South Carolina. And it looks as if Romney is strong only among those demographic groups that are least excited about a Republican president—the moderate, the liberal, the educated, and the wealthy. If Romney has a base at all, it is located somewhere far from the traditional Republican constituencies.
What I find most interesting in the current iteration of the Republican presidential race is that there is some sense of panic among the party elite and its base. Everyone, it seems, is worried. The base is worried that they’ll have a moderate standard bearer, and the establishment is increasingly worried that Romney is not as electable as they had presumed.
The problem is partially the fault of the alternative-to-Romney candidates themselves. The social conservative icon Santorum is repugnant to the libertarian elements of the party. Everyone who knows Newt Gingrich well argues that he’s unfit for office, not to mention the fact that he runs as a family-values candidate while clutching the hand of his third wife.
But the blame ultimately falls on Romney and his backers. The establishment wanted electability, but electability comes both from igniting the passions of the base and appealing to moderate voters. There are candidates out there who could have done both—Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, or possibly even Chris Christie. Romney’s candidacy satisfies only one side of that equation. He has never fired up the base, and probably never will.
This is not to say, of course, that Romney can’t win the nomination. In fact, I would still be surprised if he didn’t. But winning the nomination is the first, and least important, obstacle. If Romney wins, the Republican Party will run against an articulate sitting president, who is better-financed and presides over an improving economy. And it will run with a demoralized base. This is a great failure of the party’s leadership, and it comes with two very serious consequences.
The first is that in the world of governance, Republicans will be shut out of the game for another four years. Obamacare, a piece of legislation that I have argued is extremely misguided, will not be reformed in any significant way. Perhaps multiple justices of the Supreme Court will be appointed. Progressive intellectuals might sit in the seats that have been occupied by the likes of D.C. Circuit judge Brett Kavanaugh, or former solicitor general Paul Clement.
The second is that the conservative movement will have learned the wrong lessons from eight years of powerlessness. Many currently believe the movement's failures can be blamed on the moderate voices within the party. And they will come to the 2016 presidential primary with a renewed belief that only the most conservative candidate is palpable. This will mean another electoral loss for the Republicans, unless by fortune the conservative candidate they settle on both appeals to moderates and has the force of personality to steer the party in a new direction.
I do not mean to hold the grassroots blameless. Undoubtedly, the conservative movement, of which I am a member, is approaching the line of incoherence—supporting reduced deficits without allowing for more revenue or less entitlement spending. But the path back to sensibleness—and power—was never going to be blazed by the grassroots that quite frankly has much better things to do with its time than obsess over politics. Party leadership sets the movement’s course, and always has. I hope next time they’ll choose a better captain.