Four years ago, Mitt Romney was the last, best hope of the conservative movement as a surging John McCain looked set to clinch the Republican nomination. Romney’s concession speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) (parts a, b, and c) cemented his bond with the delegates, who understood their ideals were about to yield to the compromise politics of the moderate–and ostensibly more electable–McCain.
Today, Romney is considered the compromise candidate, regarded with suspicion by the conservative base as the emissary of the Republican establishment. That is not, as the left (and David Frum) alleges, because the party has become more “extreme.” Rather, it is because Barack Obama’s far-left agenda has produced a strong desire for new leadership that will aggressively oppose the dramatic growth in the size and cost of government.
The Obama agenda was a challenge the Republican Party seemed unprepared, unable, and–at times–unwilling to resist in early 2009. That is why the Tea Party emerged–first in response to the Obama “porkulus,” then ObamaCare. It could not reverse those policies right away, but after the 2010 elections it ensured Republicans would refuse to raise taxes to close the deficit, or to approve bailouts of profligate state governments.
For the Tea Party, the next goal is to repeal ObamaCare and to pass entitlement and spending reforms that ensure the financial stability of the U.S. government, without raising taxes that will constrain economic growth. In so doing, Tea Party conservatives hope to do more than restrain the expansion of government, but to also restore the robust vision of individual freedom that enabled America’s rise as a global industrial power.
That is a different mission than the one many Republicans shared in 2008, when the unifying goal was to protect the military gains of the war on terror from the radical anti-war agenda that had seized the resurgent Democrats. McCain was a better fit for that agenda, and Romney is a weak standard-bearer for the new one, having supported big government interventions–albeit at the state level–in both health care and energy.
In the rudderless Obama economy, Romney’s greatest strength is his management experience, which includes success in the private sector as well as in government. That would seem to make him more qualified than other Republican candidates, except that conservatives aren’t looking for someone to manage the economy, but to free it from the constraints–regulations, taxes, and cronyism–that federal management has imposed.
Romney has also remained muted as the Tea Party has faced a relentless campaign of demonization by Democrats and the media, and hostility from Beltway Republicans. He seems to be continuing to keep a distance from Tea Party conservatives, as well as social conservatives (albeit to a lesser extent). His campaign seems to regard open support from either as a potential liability in the general election it assumes it will be contesting.
Nevertheless, there may be a conservative case to be made for supporting Romney:
First, while Obama might drive even more voters to the conservative cause in his second term, he could make lasting changes along the way–especially on the Supreme Court–that would frustrate conservative political goals for generations.
Second, foreign policy could return to the fore in 2012–and Romney is one of the few candidates who has a well-informed foreign policy consistent with Ronald Reagan’s tradition of American global leadership.
Finally, while Romney is not quite the establishment figure he is often made out to be, there is something to be said for having an establishment, even one in need of reform. After the dramatic changes of the past decade, Americans are eager for stability. That is a fundamentally conservative impulse, and one that an establishment leader could satisfy.
Democrats believe the best charge against Romney is that he is a “flip-flopper.” It’s not Romney’s inconsistency that worries conservatives, but his underlying convictions. Yet if we consider that the Supreme Court may strike down all or part of Obamacare next spring, and that even a Democratic Congress failed to pass climate change legislation, we may be able to look past the most problematic of Romney’s previous positions.
Romney may not have courted Tea Party support, but he has tacitly adopted key points of its conservative agenda–repealing Obamacare, cutting federal spending, and fixing the entitlement system.
Conservatives should consider supporting Romney–and do so while understanding that unlike Obama’s left-wing base, we will have to be as strong a check on a president we have elected as we have been against one we have opposed.