Conservative Anti-Romney Pundits Struggle to Embrace Mitt

Romney could cause “the destruction of the conservative movement as we know it,” Erickson wrote. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP-Getty Images

Erick Erickson was out of patience, tired of reading about Mitt Romney as a paragon of conservative virtue, tired of hearing the callers to his Atlanta radio show praise Romney's record.

The founder of the red-meat blog sat down last fall in his Macon home, beside a towering painting of Abraham Lincoln, and banged out an epic rant. Romney was "unprincipled," he wrote, and yet certain to win the Republican presidential nomination—an outcome that would cause "the destruction of the conservative movement as we know it."

Time has not softened Erickson's stance. The onetime Presbyterian church deacon turned CNN commentator now tells Newsweek: "There are a whole lot of conservatives who think Romney is not really a whole lot better than Obama."

Erickson and other keepers of the conservative flame have been trying for more than a year to muscle Mitt aside in favor of someone—anyone!—who didn't reek of moderation. Now, despite the empty chatter about a brokered convention, there is no Plan B left, no savior waiting in the wings. It is a moment of truth for the dead-enders, who have to decide whether to relent and rally around Romney or hang back, even if it means helping Barack Obama win a second term.

The unrelenting anti-Romney hostility has ruptured the conservative media movement—a movement that has come to define, and in some ways dominate, the modern Republican Party. This election is sorely testing its solidarity as the tension between purity and pragmatism bursts into public view.

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Washington Post blogger, says too many of her comrades "reflexively choose the guy who's furthest to the right and everyone else is the anti-Christ ... Many of these people would rather lose than have someone who's going to move the Republican Party closer to the center. They thrive on being out in the wilderness."

The wilderness can indeed be an appealing place, since it is more popular to be on offense (against socialists and scoundrels) than to defend an uninspiring standard-bearer. But now many of the right's leading voices are struggling with this question: are they about promoting a political party or perpetuating their own success?

Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative bible National Review, doesn't hold back when it comes to Romney: "Anything he does, there's an automatic assumption that it's the synthetic product of calculation. There's something lacking at the core." As the alternatives have faded, Lowry is trying to make peace with the idea of Romney as nominee: "If I have to manufacture enthusiasm, I'll happily do so." Yet in the next breath, he frames the choice as "a flawed candidate running against a very flawed president."

Another conspicuous holdout is Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. "His campaign can be off-putting, the presumption that if you're not with him, there's something wrong with you," Kristol says. "You can't have it both ways, saying, 'I haven't been part of Washington' and then, 'Gee, I wonder why all those Washington guys don't have more of an attachment to me.'?"

For his part, Romney hasn't courted the Beltway loudmouths and avoids the Sunday talk circuit. "This isn't a green-room campaign," says Stuart Stevens, Romney's top strategist. "There's a strength to being outside of Washington and not part of that culture. It just helps you focus on running your own campaign and not trying to please everyone."

The conservative commentariat has not always held such sway. Two decades ago, those on the right felt shut out of a media culture they viewed as incorrigibly liberal. Rush Limbaugh was just starting to build a national radio show, and Fox News was a gleam in Rupert Murdoch's eye. The right-wing media machine that emerged during the Clinton years was a largely oppositional force, willing to embrace sexual investigations to evict a Democratic president.

A split began to emerge during the Bush years, when neocons cheered his war-making while budget hawks decried his big-spending ways. Many leading commentators were notably lukewarm toward John McCain, but they closed ranks in the fall of 2008—except for those (such as Kathleen Parker and David Frum) who declared Sarah Palin ludicrously unqualified.

When Obama took office, the Glenn Beck era blossomed: increasingly shrill, sometimes racially tinged, and filled with dark rumors about the president's birthplace and religion. But the drive to oust him was stalled by a parade of floundering candidates. Fox's megaphone has been muted. Sean Hannity has had friendly chats with Romney; even a sitdown with Bill O'Reilly was unusually low-key. But Fox is hardly "shilling" for Romney, as Rick Santorum charges. Network insiders say relations with Santorum are strained over his negative reaction when Fox chief Roger Ailes suspended him and Newt Gingrich as network contributors as they geared up their campaigns.

Talk radio hasn't embraced the frontrunner either. Radio host Laura Ingraham, who backed Romney's presidential bid in 2008, now openly questions whether he can beat Obama. When she asked him in January about the weakness in his argument that voters should dump Obama despite an improving economy, Romney shot back: "Have you got a better one, Laura?"

Ingraham says that "he obviously needs to be able to answer my questions if he's going to take on the Obama machine" and that for conservatives "it starts to feel like a classic relationship problem—we don't understand each other." The same could be said of Rush Limbaugh, who has played golf with the candidate but tells listeners, "Romney is not a conservative ... He comes across as the prototypical rich Republican."

The most influential Romney sympathizer in the media may be Matt Drudge, who fills his Web page with pro-Romney headlines and links to stories trashing Santorum and Gingrich. But Drudge has scoffed at any notion of a pro-Romney conspiracy (few know he once had dinner with Santorum). He views himself as a Wizard of Oz, pulling levers from behind the curtain that will boost traffic to his site, regardless of the target.

And so the debate rages on. Erickson, the Georgia blogger, actually backed Romney in 2007—only to yank the endorsement in disgust. Now, he says, "we are in a bizarre world where Ann Coulter argues Romneycare is conservative." The flamboyant Coulter once declared that Republicans would lose if Romney got the nomination. Now she is vouching for his right-wing credentials—and bluntly informing the former governor that "you owe me."

The dreariest scenario for conservative media types, as a Fox executive admits, would be having to halfheartedly defend a Romney administration. Opinion-mongers are in the business of attracting audiences, generating clicks, building brands, stoking outrage—which is very different from assembling a governing coalition.

And what will the dead-enders do if Romney falls short? Lowry sees an "internal bloodbath," with some pundits already "setting themselves up to say, 'We told you he was going to lose because he wasn't conservative enough.' There's no question it would be better for everyone's place in the marketplace to have another Obama term."

Erickson, meanwhile, is struggling to reconcile himself to the inevitable outcome. He wonders whether an aide's remark, likening Romney to an Etch a Sketch, "was a little too telling. I'm still not sure what we're getting."