Ross Douthat looks at the pre-positioning for the 2012 Republican presidential primary. He explains that there are the populists — Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee — with devoted followers and equally devoted detractors, and that there is the “next in line” Republican — Mitt Romney. The name of the game, Douthat suggests, for establishment Republicans (the geniuses who preferred Charlie Crist to Marco Rubio?) is to stage “a kind of intra-establishment coup, in which Romney is knocked from his perch as the safe, sober choice and a fresher figure takes his place.” Douthat throws out some contenders: Tim Pawlenty, Jeb Bush, John Thune, Mitch Daniels, and Haley Barbour. Douthat advises Romney to “co-opt some of the populist zeal that a Palin or a Huckabee” exhibit without alienating the establishment.
What’s wrong with this analysis? It has no context, and Douthat treats the contenders as archetypes (“sober reformer,” “unpredictable populist,” etc.) rather than as actual contenders with personalities and histories. Romney’s biggest problem isn’t Palin or Huckabee or any other Republican; it is that he championed a health-care bill that looks very similar to ObamaCare, which is the object of the entire party’s ire. Oh, yes — that.
If we learned anything in 2008 it was that context matters. The “unbeatable” Hillary Clinton ran precisely the wrong campaign (“experience”) in a “change” election year. Obama never looked back after the financial meltdown, because the context had changed — wariness of George W. Bush had been transformed into fury over the economic collapse. So, yes, the GOP has a habit of giving the nod to the “runner-up” from the previous year; but we’ve had a political earthquake, and the past is not much of a guide to the new political landscape.
Moreover, if Romney or any candidate is banking on establishment Republicans, as Douthat explains, “to rally around him once the primary voting starts — not out of love or admiration, but out of fear of the populist alternative,” he really has not been paying attention. The “establishment” isn’t really in charge of much of anything any more. The party elders, for better or worse, are being ignored. Ask Rubio, Rand Paul, Nikki Haley, Sharon Angle, and the rest if endorsements by the establishment and big-name donors are the key to victory. The old rules for picking presidential nominees (No congressmen! Must be a household name!) and the creaky campaign customs (The former governor of Maryland endorses candidate X!) have been blown up — first by Obama and then by the Obama backlash.
Maybe Romney four years after his first run can close the sale and figure out a way to deal with RomneyCare. But he won’t do it by splitting the difference between the Tea Party and the Beltway or by ingratiating himself with insiders (the ones who took more than a year to figure out what the Tea Partiers were all about). That sort of thinking is so 2008. The context has changed. The rules — if there are any — are different.
It’s not clear whether outsiderness or executive acumen will carry the day. The only thing for certain is that the old rule book is of absolutely no help.