Mitt Romney's Struggle to Convince Conservatives

Mitt Romney 2012
Supporters in South Carolina. Charles Ommanney for Newsweek

It must seem to Mitt Romney, freshly infused with a new dose of momentum, that inevitability ain’t what it used to be. The forces within his party that have served up one challenger after another, including Newt Gingrich twice, will persist long after Romney has vanquished the last of them. The Massachusetts Moderate, as Gingrich calls him (when he’s feeling friendly), is in for a long struggle that has less to do with ideology than with class, less with what he says or does than with who he is: a rich guy who’ll always seem to be masquerading in costume when he mingles with the folks in his campaign jeans.

If he needs a reminder of how things have changed within the Republican Party, Romney only need think back to the final day of his last campaign, in February 2008, when he conceded defeat to John McCain. Standing before what amounted to the Republican base in assembly—the annual Conservative Political Action Conference—Romney heard himself introduced as “the conservative’s conservative” and proceeded to deliver the speech of his career. He asserted the virtues of American culture, decried the corrosive effects of liberalism, and dared to liken his own campaign to Ronald Reagan’s 1976 insurgency—and the audience cheered its affirmation.

Prominent conservative leaders welcomed Romney into the movement. Rush Limbaugh voiced his support on the air, as did Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham (who also gave Romney that effusive intro at CPAC). “I was seen as the conservative candidate,” Romney recently recalled in a conversation with Newsweek. With the right’s applause still ringing in his ears, Romney began the long march toward 2012, having reason to believe that he’d overcome the greatest impediment to his presidential ambitions.

The conservative love, of course, proved cruelly illusory, as became evident from the day Romney officially announced his 2012 candidacy last June. His New Hampshire kickoff event had the carefully staged feel of presumed inevitability, but the excitement that day emanated from Sarah Palin’s tour-bus drive-by elsewhere in the state. Romney’s small footprint on the Republican landscape left a lot of open space, and the scramble to fill it has been the story of the 2012 campaign. Romney’s inability to claim more of that space himself, even as his rivals began to fall off, posed a real peril to his candidacy that became clear only with Gingrich’s second surge, when pollsters examining Romney’s standing with voters began using terms like “collapse.”

Romney says he understands the conservative reluctance about him, and he names its source: Romneycare. “I think what happened between four years ago and today is that President Obama took his 2,700-page Obamacare bill and tried to stretch the sheep’s clothing of the Massachusetts health-care plan around it,” he says. “I think that to some Republicans that meant that I was somehow responsible for what he did. And that allowed some people to characterize me as being moderate, because it sounded like the president and I were on the same page.”

Romney is only partly right. He entered this Republican primary season with Romneycare hanging around his neck, as Rick Santorum put it, like “a scarlet letter.” But Romney’s greater problem with the grassroots is his disconnect from a GOP reshaped by the Tea Party, with its visceral disdain of the political establishment. Romney is, and ever shall be, the candidate of the establishment, and, though he is capable of sharp debate (as Gingrich has lately learned), rhetorical alley fighting is not his métier.

“His problem is the same as the problem that George Herbert Walker Bush had,” says John Sununu, a Romney supporter who served as the elder Bush’s White House chief of staff. “They come from a genteel segment of society that doesn’t instinctively have the capacity of putting sharp edges on the words they use. Conservatives like sharp rhetoric and prefer to support someone with sharper elbows.”

Romney’s campaign has no particular strategy for winning over the pitchfork crowd (“Just win,” says a senior strategist. “When you win, they all love you”), beyond his positions on issues, which are at least as conservative as those of his remaining competitors. The restive base is still not sold, but that very fact may contain the seeds of Romney’s ultimate vindication on the right. On his most vulnerable issue, health care, Romney has so determinedly sought to reassure the base—repeatedly promising to issue a 50-state waiver on Obamacare on his first day in office, then foster its full repeal—that anything less would invite insurrection. Romney would have to undo Obamacare, Sununu says, “if for no other reason than to confirm his commitment to doing it.”

Much of the frustration on the right derives from its abiding search for a new Reagan, and Romney is certainly no Reagan. But in his long struggle to convince the ideological right that he is on their side, he has bound himself so tightly to a conservative program that he could wiggle free only at great cost. It is possible to imagine that, if Romney somehow survives the primary battles and defeats Obama in November, the Massachusetts Moderate will govern more closely to the Reagan model than the conservatives now hoping to undo him would ever imagine.

Romney’s victory in New Hampshire suggested he was making headway with the party’s right wing, as he carried the state’s pro-life voters, those describing themselves as “very conservative,” and even the voters saying they identified with the Tea Party. In the weeks since, however, Romney has learned just how persistent, and varied, conservative resistance to him is. A few days after the New Hampshire vote, a group of conservative Christian leaders met in Texas for the purpose of agreeing on a non-Romney candidate. According to one participant in the meeting, some values voters doubted the sincerity of Romney’s conversion on the issue of abortion. One of the principals said there was also some private discussion of Romney’s faith. “You do have a small group—and I heard this articulated, off on the side, at the meeting—saying, ‘We don’t want to have a cult leader as president of the United States,’ ” the participant said.

With the public release of Romney’s 2010 and 2011 tax filings, there was broad speculation over whether his contributions to the Mormon Church—$4.13 million in those two years—would heighten unease about his religion. Asked by Newsweek whether he would follow the course of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, and publicly tell his faith story during this campaign, Romney said he’d done it once—in a 2007 speech in Texas—and would not shy from the subject when it arises. “I am one who believes very deeply in Jesus as the son of God and as my personal savior,” he says. “I would not want that to be a qualification for president, because I believe that a Jewish person should be able to be president, and I recognize that in our past we’ve had presidents who were deists and people of other faiths. I don’t wear my religious conviction in the divinity of Jesus Christ on my sleeve, but I do believe in the Bible and believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, and try to pattern my life, to the extent I can, according the teachings of the Master.”

Some have speculated that Romney’s faith may have hurt him in heavily evangelical South Carolina, and Romney acknowledges that some religious conservatives may hesitate about him because he is a Mormon. “I’m sure that there are some in my party for whom my religion is a real stumbling block, who would prefer not to vote for someone of my faith. I understand that,” he says. “I don’t have a number or a percent for you. I don’t think it’s dispositive in the races ahead. I don’t expect to win every primary or caucus across the country, and there may be somewhere that becomes a bigger factor than in others.”

Religious prejudice, as with other forms of intolerance, is difficult to measure precisely as a motivating factor in voting, although Romney supposes that voters have long since factored in his Mormonism when considering him. “I think that people probably considered this of great interest during my last campaign,” he says, “and the great majority of Americans have moved on to my other more glaring weaknesses.”

Romney’s little joke suggests that he understands that his most glaring weakness may be his lack of a poetic flaw, a useful element in a politician’s essential task of connecting with other human beings. Romney’s perfect hair and perfect family, his abstinence from petty vices (alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine), and his relentless good cheer invite easy caricature (Wedding Cake Man) and somehow further distance him from ordinary Americans. Gingrich, ever able to turn flaws into virtues, touched on this last week, when he said that his own obvious imperfections, such as his past infidelities, may actually have helped him with evangelicals in South Carolina. “It may make me more normal,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “than somebody who wanders around seeming perfect.”

The Mitt-bot factor may partly explain the free-floating conservative unease about Romney, which has fueled each new challenge to his frontrunner status. There is a deeply felt sense that Romney, for all his advantages, lacks the stuff to stand up to Obama and his formidable campaign machinery this fall.

As it happens, Romney was presented with a test of that proposition this month, with the surfacing of a 28-minute attack video called King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town. The video, which had its origins in Rick Perry’s super PAC, was a brutal takedown of Romney’s tenure as a venture capitalist, complete with teary tales of forlorn working folk whose lives allegedly had been ruined by Bain’s voracious greed. The video’s real power, though, was its effect on the dynamics of the race. The notion of venture capital as a malevolent force was taboo in Republican politics, and though most of the stories in the film derived from opposition research compiled by Romney’s opponents in 2008, the line of attack on Bain had not been used. When Perry supporters saw the film, they declined to use it and parted ways with Barry Bennett, the political operative who’d produced it.

Bennett quickly found other suitors, and while Jon Huntsman’s super PAC was negotiating a deal, a committee supporting Gingrich bought rights to the film. News of the acquisition, first reported by The Daily Beast, dramatically changed the narrative of the Republican race. The rationale of Romney’s candidacy, that the election would turn on the economy and that a businessman would have an inherent advantage, began to collapse as the political-media axis cast its attention on the sausage factory that is raw capitalism.

Romney says he hadn’t expected the line of attack until Obama launched it this fall. “I have been surprised to see Speaker Gingrich—and a few others, but mostly Speaker Gingrich—decide to weigh in as perhaps the first witness in the president’s prosecution,” Romney says.

It’s one thing to debate the merits of private equity with a community organizer who keeps a safe distance from the message of the Occupy movement. It’s quite another to be challenged on the painful side of capitalism from the right, as Gingrich and Perry proceeded to do. Romney was capable of a vigorous defense—his book, No Apology, has more than a dozen references to “creative destruction”—but for an excruciating week, he somehow found himself unable to give it.

His allies were dismayed. The conservative press offered its own defense of capitalism, and Chris Christie publicly urged Romney to resolve the corollary issue of his taxes.

For Gingrich, opening the Bain matter was a characteristically audacious move, fraught with risk, but in the short run, it paid off. He used the issue as a battering ram to get himself back into the race and had a victory in South Carolina to show for it. Romney limped into Florida, his inevitability gone, and having seemingly proved his critics’ worst fears.

At the first of the two Florida debates, NBC’s Brian Williams asked the candidates what each of them had done for the cause of conservatism. Gingrich listed a gilded résumé, from Goldwater to Reagan, that suggested he’d more or less issued the movement from his own loins. Romney’s answer was more awkward, and more telling; he’d gotten married, had kids, and gone to work in the private sector.

Romney is no movement conservative, whatever those exuberant CPAC conventioneers in 2008 might have told him. What he has to sell to the right is the idea that he is a conservative by disposition, by sensibility. Before he had any discernible politics, he devoted himself to a faith that extols family values, and the line of work he chose, for all its failings, was a full-immersion experience in free enterprise. When he took up politics, he accommodated himself enough to the realities of Massachusetts to win election (see Scott Brown’s current campaign). But he makes a plausible case that he governed as conservatively as is possible in the Bay State. He tried, vainly, to finesse the abortion issue, declaring himself a defender of Roe v. Wade, but he also recanted his pro-choice stance convincingly enough (vetoing an -embryonic-stem-cell bill) to earn the commendation of the leader of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Sununu makes the argument that Romney governed as conservatively in liberal Massachusetts as Reagan did in liberal California (where Reagan signed a law liberalizing abortion restrictions and presided over the doubling of the state budget). “In an almost paradoxical way, Reagan, pre-governor, was more conservative than when he was a governor, and Mitt Romney as a governor was more conservative than he campaigned,” Sununu says.

Of course, conservatives will point out that Sununu was the man who suggested that George H.W. Bush nominate David Souter to the Supreme Court, where he became a reliable liberal vote until his retirement in 2009.

For conservatives, Romney’s sensibility is no substitute for a reliable record, which is why, in shaping his campaign and laying out his program for governing, Romney has taken pains to send cues to conservatives. One of his advisers on judiciary matters is Robert Bork, a sainted figure from the culture wars, and Romney insists his appointments to the bench will please the right. “The type of justices that I would be inclined to appoint would be like justices Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia,” he says, “people who tend to see the Constitution as not just the starting point, but also the ending point for a constitutional deliberation.” He says he would not hesitate to appoint an openly gay person to the high court as long as he or she is a strict constructionist. “I don’t delve into one’s personal conduct. I do delve into their judicial philosophy.”

On foreign policy, Romney has accorded John Bolton preeminence among his advisers, underscoring his insistence on a robust American presence in the world. He talks tough on China and doesn’t shy from threatening the imposition of tariffs.

The establishment-versus-grassroots storyline has settled into common wisdom, and, should Romney win the election, that tension will likely follow him into the White House—a reminder that the pitchforks stand at the ready.

Meanwhile, Romney works on regaining his inevitability. He went to Florida fully aware of the concern that he’d not be able to make a forceful case against Obama this fall. “I’m not worried about the attacks that come my way,” he said. “If I can’t handle what’s coming now, when I face the onslaught of a billion dollars from the Democratic National Committee and President Obama’s campaign, I’d wither.”

He did not wither in Florida. Having thoroughly dismantled Gingrich’s edge on the debate stage, Romney now looks to the caucus states and Super Tuesday, having delivered to conservatives at least part of what they wished for: an alpha dog, albeit without the snarl.

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