Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Need for Paddles

In view of Rick Santorum’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi, it seems the general media response is, ho hum, no big deal. As they say, while stifling yawns, no one "in the know" expected Mitt Romney to do all that well in the deep South. Besides, as they’re quick to point out, Romney made it up by picking up delegates in American Samoa and Hawaii. (They're a bit slower to note, American Samoa has no electoral votes and Hawaii will freeze over before it ever delivers any crucial ones for a Republican.)

All the same, even if conservatives find this sort of condescension irritating, they shouldn’t miss that a concession is being made.

The underlying premise is: well of course, Romney didn't do well in the South – he's not a conservative! As everyone understands, there’re lots of conservatives down South. It’s not like New England or some other place where conservative views are toned down to accommodate liberal sensibilities. In the South, people are more accustomed to publicly expressing conservative positions. So it’s no wonder that they rejected Romney for what he is, a Massachusetts moderate.

No, the problem isn’t with the South. It’s with states like Ohio. In the Ohio primary, Republican voters allowed Romney to edge out Santorum, 37.9% to 37.1% (while wasting an additional 24% on Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul). But then, it wasn’t that Ohio Republicans misjudged Romney, figuring him for a conservative. Rather, it's that, misguidedly, Ohioans are more apt to believe moderates are better able to win general elections than conservatives. Romney is the unpleasant medicine we’re supposed to take to rid ourselves of a guy like Obama.

But anyone who has ever stewed over the notion of John McCain getting the Republican nominee in 2008, or was aggravated by George W. Bush’s deficit spending, should be thinking long and hard about this Romney candidacy. We’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t turn out well. Romney may prove to be a terrible disaster – as in a loss to Barack Obama in the fall.

Look at how the Romney forces campaigned in Ohio against Santorum. They massively outspent him with cash bundles raised on Wall Street and channeled through an unaccountable super PAC. Most of the money went to run non-stop radio attack ads which falsely painted Santorum as a big spending Senator who whimsically spent his years blowing tax dollars on such things as the Bridge to Nowhere.

Of course, little was spent trying to convince anyone that Romney was a conservative. After all, it’s no big secret that while Santorum was in the Senate pushing through Welfare Reform, Romney was back in Massachusetts attending Planned Parenthood fundraisers and writing checks to Democrat candidates.

Still, Romney's negative ads had their desired impact. Just as in every other state in which he's had to compete, his attack ads suppressed turnout by disheartening the lesser informed voters. Romney’s path to the nomination lies with holding down and splitting the conservative vote while advertising himself as someone who will appeal to non-conservatives in the general election. In other words, it’s the path John McCain took to defeat in 2008.

The preference for this moderate strategy never dies within certain circles of the Republican Party. There are always those who think, if we just sell out a bit by backing a moderate candidate, enough of the unaligned voters will back our boy against a more liberal Democrat. The fact that the strategy typically fails never seems to faze them.

Why does it fail? First, it presumes, despite all the polling, that most unaligned voters (the “independents”) aren’t at all conservative. Rather, they’re viewed as lukewarm Democrats who are thirsting for liberal government. It never occurs to squishes that voters might be unaligned because they’re unpersuaded the GOP is committed to anything they care about.

Secondly, people fail to grasp that when a moderate candidate campaigns against a conservative in a Republican primary, he’s usually doing it with the support of the liberal media. In effect, the moderate is being carried along downstream. But all that stops if he ever sews up the GOP nomination. The media will then fall in line behind the Democrat, and from there on in, it’s all upstream – without a paddle. Think of issues as paddles.

For a guy like Romney, that means his record is of little concern to the media prior to the nomination. Instead, they’re mostly focused on his great smile, bearing and charming patrician manner. They can't get over the fact that he has all the money and endorsements. If he fails to address certain issues, well, that’s chalked up to his finely honed skills and polish. Meanwhile… would you look at those wacko nuts he’s running against! (And ignore that “whiny” Santorum fellow out on the edge of things).

But just as McCain learned, if Romney gets the nomination, everything will change. If he pretends to be a conservative, the media will present him as a flip-flopper. If Romney attacks Obama’s policies, he’ll be seen as a fraud. His support of bank bailouts will be equated to Obama’s TARP spending, and his Romneycare will be viewed as the father of Obamacare – so what’s the beef? He can’t even portray himself as anti-tax, not after massively raising “fees” in Massachusetts. He’ll find himself issueless, and always on defense.

Getting personal, the media will no longer find Romney interesting or pleasant. We’ll hear he has a thin skin and a bad temper. We’ll learn about his facial ticks, family problems, and odd mannerisms. Out will come the goofy photographs and video clips of him being klutzy. We'll hear of everyone he ever snubbed, every corner he cut, and every indiscretion he committed. Do you remember, during the last presidential contest, when McCain was accused of having an affair with some female lobbyist? Maybe some Anita Hill will turn up to claim Romney sexually harassed her.

Ultimately, when a moderate wins a Republican nomination, claiming to be next-in-line, they can shortly find their support is far shallower than they ever dreamed. They might have been the best-funded Republican and everyone’s darling, but once the media deserts them, they often find little they can cling to. One day they’re “inevitable” – the next, they’re old news. Ask McCain.

That’s why we should be choosing a nominee who can make a strong contrast to the Democrat. Make Obama’s policies the issue. Give the voters a clear choice on matters of principle. Get a guy whose record enables him to champion the issues your party actually supports. (Hint: former Senator from Pennsylvania.)

Note: each contributor at 3BP has their own favorite in the GOP race. One opinion for or against a certain candidate is not necessarily shared by other contributors.

Updated to correct typos.

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