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The Election—II

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama at the beginning of the first presidential debate, Denver, October 3, 2012

Frank Rich

For all the liberal nail-biting about the presidential campaign of 2012, and for all the entertaining journalistic updates on the daily horse race, the fundamental story has remained unchanged (and not terribly suspenseful) all year. The Republican Party’s angry and highly motivated conservative base—possessed by loathing of Barack Obama and his devious schemes to turn America into Sweden—could not find a plausible candidate to lead its crusade. Assuming that Obama retrieves the A game he failed to bring to his convention address and first debate, the right now faces the serious prospect of defeat in what it saw as a can’t-miss election in which a sluggish economic recovery, a much-vilified health care law, and the public’s presumed disenchantment with an incompetent president were all supposed to guarantee victory.

The first draft of history, especially as written by Charles Krauthammer, Peggy Noonan, and their fellow travelers at Fox News, may well tell us that it was all Mitt Romney’s fault. Such an oversimplification would be designed to bury their own embarrassing record of getting behind a nominee whose career-long penchant for political malpractice has not exactly been a state secret. Still, Romney’s early dreadfulness as a candidate was breathtaking. For a while he had the highest negative poll ratings of any major-party presidential nominee in modern polling history. He has no fixed principles, and seemingly no fixed abode. (Can anyone say with authority whether his principal home is in New Hampshire, California, or Massachusetts?) For its part, his campaign has had no compass either, veering off at the slightest distraction from its stated strategy (a laser focus on the unemployment rate and Obama’s failure to ameliorate it).

As a retail campaigner, Romney’s human skills fall somewhere between those of Richard Nixon and Hal the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He does not know how to speak American English (e.g., “sport” for “sports”). And he has remained a mystery man to voters no matter what the full-press efforts to “humanize” him. That’s because three of the four main planks of his biography (his career in equity capital at Bain, his moderate tenure as governor of Massachusetts, and his lifelong devotion to the Church of Latter-Day Saints) were skirted whenever possible by Romney and his handlers out of fear that the details could scare away various sectors of his own base, whether white working-class men, anti-Obamacare zealots, or evangelical Christians. The fourth item on the Romney résumé, his performance in “saving” the 2002 Winter Olympics, was muddied by the candidate when he kicked off his tour abroad by insulting Britain’s conservative leadership on its management of what would prove to be a stellar Summer Olympics in London.

What’s now half-forgotten in the pileup of Romney’s campaign debacles is just how vehemently voters in his own party have always disliked him and still do. For much of the Republican primary contest, somewhere between three quarters and two thirds of the GOP electorate wanted anyone but Romney, with the bar for “anyone” at times sinking low enough to let in clowns as manifestly unfit for the presidency as Donald Trump and Herman Cain, neither of whom had ever held public office of any kind.

Both before and after Romney secured the nomination by default, he was tireless in pandering to the various GOP constituencies who kept rejecting him. He called for the “self- deportation” of illegal immigrants and vowed to stop funding for Planned Parenthood and Title X. He chose an Ayn Rand disciple as a running mate. He cracked a birther joke. He mouthed a truculent foreign policy under the tutelage of unreconstructed Bush administration neocons. He fully embraced the chimera of supply-side economics to the embarrassing point, especially for a professed data guy, of leaving the numbers blank in his campaign’s tax and budgetary policy proposals.

And yet with the sole (and far from representative) exception of Fox News, many in the conservative camp remained not just skeptical but outright hostile. The critique of the Republican standard-bearer from the right was just as harsh as that from Democrats—and not just because of his botched campaign. During the Republican convention Romney was frequently lacerated on ideological grounds by the popular right-wing radio talk-show hosts Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, and, on occasion, Rush Limbaugh. Foreign policy analysts at The American Conservative routinely mock Romney’s neocon retinue and his reckless saber-rattling at Iran. When Romney was caught on video in what seemed to be a sincere John Galtish monologue bemoaning the “47 percent” of Americans who are government-dependent deadbeats, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and other true believers criticized Romney not for the political disaster of alienating half the voting public but for not articulating the conservative economic catechism as brilliantly as Journal editorialists.*

Romney is so distrusted and disdained by the mainstream of his own radical right-wing party that in the event he enters the White House, he will serve as a pliant errand boy for the elements in the base he tried and failed to placate throughout the campaign. Grover Norquist spoke for the real powers-that-be in the GOP when he told the Conservative Political Action Committee in February that the GOP candidate’s only function as president would be “to sign the legislation that has already been prepared” by the Republican congressional caucus, starting with the government-slashing Ryan budget.

If Romney loses, he will retreat into whatever state he resides in, fading immediately into oblivion. Historians will forever wonder how a man with no constituency in either political party ever ascended to the top of a national ticket. Romney is but a placeholder in the rightward evolution of the GOP, and his candidacy has been nothing if not a genuine fluke, unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. In his wake, the right will move fast to identify the tribune it has been yearning for, someone like Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio who can give voice to its ideology and rage without frightening swing voters (no Bachmann or Santorum need apply) and who will at last offer the country the uncompromising alternative to Democratic fecklessness that was missing from the top, if not the bottom, of the GOP ticket in 2008 and 2012.

Though the last presidential race and this one have been routinely called “historic” by one side or the other, both elections may yet prove footnotes en route to the showdown that’s in store for our polarized nation in 2016.

  1. *

    For a detailed account of the conservative critique of Romney, see “My Embed in Red,” New York, September 16, 2012. 

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