Commentary Magazine


Topic: GOP presidential race

Romney’s Right Where He Needs to Be

A year ago, I could be counted among the vast majority of political observers who were prepared to tell you why Mitt Romney couldn’t win the Republican nomination. Today, in the aftermath of last night’s Texas Primary that allowed the former Massachusetts governor to gain a clear majority of delegates to the Republican convention, the nomination is securely and officially in his pocket. Why was I — along with a lot of other people — so wrong about Romney? There were many reasons, and more about that in a moment.

But the main point about the GOP nominee today is that after a difficult, long and bitter primary fight that was supposed to have left him weakened and with a well-funded incumbent president who is already launching brutal personal attacks on him with the eager assistance of most of the mainstream media, Romney is right where he needs to be. Though President Obama has some real advantages, the presidential race is a virtual dead heat. The economy, which is Romney’s strongest issue, is showing no signs of the sort of robust recovery that could guarantee the president’s re-election. The initial Democratic assaults on Romney’s business record (the Bain theme) and on the Republican Party in general (the faux “war on women”) have more or less flopped. A lot can happen in the next five months, but having weathered so many negative attacks from both sides of the political aisle in the last year, only the most starry-eyed Obama idolaters or the most hardened GOP pessimists could deny that Romney has, at worst, an even chance of being sworn in as the 45th president next January.

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A year ago, I could be counted among the vast majority of political observers who were prepared to tell you why Mitt Romney couldn’t win the Republican nomination. Today, in the aftermath of last night’s Texas Primary that allowed the former Massachusetts governor to gain a clear majority of delegates to the Republican convention, the nomination is securely and officially in his pocket. Why was I — along with a lot of other people — so wrong about Romney? There were many reasons, and more about that in a moment.

But the main point about the GOP nominee today is that after a difficult, long and bitter primary fight that was supposed to have left him weakened and with a well-funded incumbent president who is already launching brutal personal attacks on him with the eager assistance of most of the mainstream media, Romney is right where he needs to be. Though President Obama has some real advantages, the presidential race is a virtual dead heat. The economy, which is Romney’s strongest issue, is showing no signs of the sort of robust recovery that could guarantee the president’s re-election. The initial Democratic assaults on Romney’s business record (the Bain theme) and on the Republican Party in general (the faux “war on women”) have more or less flopped. A lot can happen in the next five months, but having weathered so many negative attacks from both sides of the political aisle in the last year, only the most starry-eyed Obama idolaters or the most hardened GOP pessimists could deny that Romney has, at worst, an even chance of being sworn in as the 45th president next January.

The main reason why Romney didn’t seem likely to be the GOP nominee in May of 2011 was RomneyCare. With the GOP grass roots up in arms largely because of ObamaCare, the burden of defending his Massachusetts health care bill struck me as too great a disadvantage. Romney’s record seemed to render him anathema to the Tea Party at a time when that movement seemed to exercise a veto over who would be nominated. Though health care remained a liability for him throughout the GOP race, the further decline of the economy last year as well as the shift in focus on the part of many activists to deficits, taxes and spending during the debt-ceiling crisis made it easier on Romney. Had a credible more conservative alternative to Romney arose that might not have mattered. But that person never materialized. Almost all of those who did run had their moment in the sun, but none of them gave the Republicans as good a shot at the White House as Romney, a point that was made over and over in exit polls that showed electability was the most important issue for GOP primary voters.

Though we are told the Democrats are still seeking to define Romney for the public, the truth is all of his shortcomings have already been brought out and endlessly rehearsed. We know that he has a record of flip-flopping on social issues; that he is too wealthy; that his business success was built on making tough decisions that sometimes involved pain for individuals working at failing companies; and that he is awkward in public, gaffe-prone and doesn’t connect well with individual voters. And, oh yes, 30 years ago, he took a vacation trip with his dog riding in a rooftop pet carrier, and he played a prank on another student in high school.

And yet despite all this he has won the GOP nomination, is in the process of raising more than enough money to offset what was supposed to be a huge Democratic advantage in fundraising and is on firm ground on the one issue that voters agree is the most important this year: the economy.

Romney will have to weather even more vicious attacks in the months to come and must learn to curb his propensity for foolish quips. He’ll have to choose an able vice presidential nominee who will demonstrate an ability to make good decisions and stand up to the president in the heat of the debates. But having already come so far and overcome so many clear disadvantages, it would be foolish for anyone to discount his chances of prevailing in November.

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Did Ron Paul Change the Republican Party?

During the long winter nights when Ron Paul and his boisterous supporters were raising hell in caucus states, one of the regular themes sounded by many mainstream media political observers was the damage the libertarian outlier was doing to the Republican brand and ultimately the party’s chances of defeating Barack Obama. Paul’s cheering throngs were loud and clear at the GOP’s presidential debates, and his strong showing in Iowa seemed to presage a dangerous extremist tilt to the opposition party.

But today, as Paul announced that he would no longer be campaigning in the remaining primary and caucus states, those warnings ring hollow. Paul may have had his moments during a fractious race, and his supporters will continue to make nuisances of themselves at state conventions, but in the end, his remained a symbolic candidacy that had little appeal to most Republicans. His libertarians will probably be heard from again in four or eight years if his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, takes the torch from his father and tries his luck at the presidential game. And some will claim he influenced the race and made great strides during his previous presidential runs. But the fact remains that his efforts fell flat as soon as the real voting started. Ron Paul ends his presidential run pretty much the way he began it: as someone outside the broad consensus of the Republican Party.

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During the long winter nights when Ron Paul and his boisterous supporters were raising hell in caucus states, one of the regular themes sounded by many mainstream media political observers was the damage the libertarian outlier was doing to the Republican brand and ultimately the party’s chances of defeating Barack Obama. Paul’s cheering throngs were loud and clear at the GOP’s presidential debates, and his strong showing in Iowa seemed to presage a dangerous extremist tilt to the opposition party.

But today, as Paul announced that he would no longer be campaigning in the remaining primary and caucus states, those warnings ring hollow. Paul may have had his moments during a fractious race, and his supporters will continue to make nuisances of themselves at state conventions, but in the end, his remained a symbolic candidacy that had little appeal to most Republicans. His libertarians will probably be heard from again in four or eight years if his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, takes the torch from his father and tries his luck at the presidential game. And some will claim he influenced the race and made great strides during his previous presidential runs. But the fact remains that his efforts fell flat as soon as the real voting started. Ron Paul ends his presidential run pretty much the way he began it: as someone outside the broad consensus of the Republican Party.

It should be conceded that Paul’s campaign was well-organized and highly effective in any state where delegates were chosen in caucuses where low turnouts minimized his main deficiency: the lack of broad support from the voters. Any place where tiny groups of motivated activists could seize control of the situation was one where Paul could make a good showing. Under those circumstances, Paul’s appeal to young, disaffected Democrats and independents who loved his isolationist stance on foreign policy and libertarian approach to social issues could make up for the fact that the overwhelming majority of Republicans had little interest in his ideas.

Paul was able to briefly shine in Iowa and stole the show at times in debates with his bizarre attacks on the Federal Reserve or his defense of the Islamist tyrants of Iran. Some liked his unassuming style and were charmed by the fact that, unlike the others on stage at the debates, he had no real plans to be president and therefore made no effort to pander to the voters. But his sideshow carnival candidacy ran out of steam as primary voters began to choose between the first tier candidates and he began a streak of last place finishes that were a better indication of his importance than the Iowa results.

His exit from active campaigning will, no doubt, provoke some pundits to claim that in 2012, his libertarians stopped being a marginal factor in the GOP and entered the mainstream. But this is, at best, an exaggeration. There was some overlap between Paul’s strict libertarianism and Tea Party sentiment about the size of government, debt and taxes. But that common ground was dwarfed by the gap between Paul’s conspiratorial view of economics as well as his foreign policy views that had more in common with the knee-jerk anti-American doctrines of the far left than with that of most Republicans.

Though many on the left wrongly assume his extremist approach resonated with the party’s base, the truth was, he had little to offer average Republican voters. Nor can it be credibly asserted that he moved the conservative discussion in his direction on any issue where it had not already moved. Every time he opened his mouth, he demonstrated the strong distinction between his own extremist approach and that of even most Tea Party hardliners.

Despite all the noise he made and the delegates he won, on the day when his campaign ended with a whimper, the chasm that separates Paul’s followers from the rest of the Republican Party is no smaller than it was a year ago.

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