It’s Over. What Have We Learned?
The GOP still practices primogeniture, but much else has changed in politics.
The Wall Street Journal: April 14, 2012
So what have we learned? The GOP presidential contest of 2012 is over. Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee. What do we know now that we didn’t know in 2011, when the campaign began? Or what do we know that we already knew, but now we’ve been reminded?
We learned that primogeniture is still a force in the GOP. The next king is the firstborn son of the current king. In political terms, the guy who came in second in the last presidential cycle stands most likely to be crowned and anointed in the current one. Republicans, for all their drama, still tend toward the orderly and still credit experience.
Running for president is serious business. You need money, fund-raising networks, organization, a campaign. You have to get on the ballot in Virginia, you have to field full slates. Mitt Romney learned all this in 2008. He was the only non-newbie in 2012.
Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann did not fully comprehend what goes into the process. Newt Gingrich didn’t care.
We learned the system is newly open to vanity productions—Messrs. Cain and Gingrich, Donald Trump. We learned Super PACs allow freelancers, and freelancers feel no loyalty to the party brand. They’ll say anything, the larger impact isn’t their problem. They are there to sell books, to further their personal project. We will see more of this, on both sides. It will not leave the process ennobled.
We learned that proportional representation is a bad idea when you’re up against a sitting president. It drags the system out, robs state victories of meaning, makes everything more common and dreary, and leaves serious candidates open to ceaseless attacks from all quarters. Mr. Romney’s negatives are up, not down, as the contest ends.
The Republican Party is a conservative party. All its front-runners held conservative views on taxing, spending, regulation, the power of the state. There is no national GOP market for liberal or liberalish Republicans. There is little market for national candidates who don’t adopt the tropes, simulate the resentments, or feel some of the anguish of the base. Mr. Gingrich worked the resentments—at one point he made fun of Mr. Romney for using the word “resolute” because it’s fancy and not plain like all us regular folk. (At other times he bragged of authoring 24 books. He was hard to keep up with.) Rick Santorum captured some of the anguish, both culturally and economically. Jon Huntsman was hobbled because he didn’t seem to identify on any level with Republicans on the ground, or particularly like them. Voters don’t take to you when they know you don’t take to them. Sarcastic tweets about global warming were not the beginning of his campaign, but the end.
We learned that rescue fantasies were fantasies. Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush stayed out. The people who said, “Don’t look for salvation from the sidelines,” were correct. Newton’s third law of political physics: People running for president tend to run for president, people not running tend not to run. Believe them when they tell you for the third time that they won’t.
Evangelicals are an ever-dominant part of the base, but they don’t march in lockstep. Like all huge blocs they encompass all levels of affluence, education, attainment and aspiration. But one thing was clear this year: The old evangelical reserve, or animosity, toward Catholics is dead. It was the Mormon who carried the Catholic vote. The Catholic Mr. Santorum drew evangelical Protestants. America is great in part because it’s always scrambling its categories and changing its clichés.
We learned Mitt Romney is not a greatly improved candidate from four years ago. He has endurance and discipline: He wants this thing. The reason why is still not fully clear. His political instincts and sense of subject matter are not much better than they were in 2008. The awkwardness continues. A major if largely unspoken Republican criticism of Mr. Romney is exactly like a major if largely unspoken Democratic criticism of President Obama: He’ll meet with you, he’s polite and appropriate, but he gives no sign afterward that he heard you, that he absorbed or pondered what you said. Nor is his campaign greatly improved. It gets the job done but it is stolid, unimaginative, small-bore. There’s a managerial tightness. People are afraid to make decisions, and pass the buck upward. A major surrogate calls the campaign “the Romney labyrinth.”
Mr. Romney has a woman problem? “Romney was saved by women, and they buried Newt,” notes former George H.W. Bush aide Lloyd Green, who studies voting tables. After Mr. Gingrich won his blowout in South Carolina, women went for Mr. Romney in Florida by 24 points. He won men by only five. In Ohio, women voted 40% for Romney to 37% for Mr. Santorum, who won men by one point. In Michigan, Romney won women again. “Personal probity matters in the GOP,” said Green. “Newt and Herman Cain are Exhibits 1 and 2.”
What is the biggest gift Romney has been given this year by the Democratic party? Hilary Rosen’s ill thought, ill-spoken, snotty remark that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life.”
Ann Romney raised five children with a husband who sometimes traveled. A mother of five will be suffering from exhaustion, not laziness, and certainly not a lack of engagement in the realities and stresses of life. Where do the Democrats get these spokesmen who are so unsympathetic, so narrow in their vision and understanding of women’s lives? What are they launching, a war on women?
Finally, in foreign affairs the Republican candidates staked out dangerous ground. They want to show they’re strong on defense. Fine, we should have a strong defense, the best in the world. But that is different from having an aggressive foreign policy stance, and every one of the GOP candidates, with the exceptions of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, was aggressive. This is how their debates sounded: We should bomb Iran Thursday. No, stupid, we should bomb Iran on Wednesday. How could you be so foolish? You know we do all our bombings on Monday. You’re wrong, we send in the destroyers and arm the insurgents on Monday.
There was no room for discretion, prudence, nuance, to use unjustly maligned terms. There was no room for an expressed bias toward not-fighting. But grown-ups really do have a bias toward not-fighting.
They are allowing the GOP to be painted as the war party. They are ceding all nonwar ground to the president, who can come forward as the sober, constrained, nonbellicose contender. Do they want that? Are they under the impression America is hungry for another war? Really? After the past 11 years?
The GOP used to be derided by Democrats as the John Wayne party: it loved shoot-’em-ups. Actually, John Wayne didn’t ride into town itching for a fight, and he didn’t ride in shooting off his mouth, either. He was laconic, observant. He rode in hoping for peace, but if something broke out he was ready. He had a gun, it was loaded, and he knew how to use it if he had to.
But he didn’t want to have to. Which was part of his character’s power. The GOP should go back to being John Wayne.
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