At this year's Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, the one thing all attendees agreed on was a desire to beat President Obama. The conundrum for conservatives is who they think would be best able to carry the fight to the President. Conservatives were never warm to John McCain and his selection of Sarah Palin notwithstanding, the electoral defeat he suffered was massive. A similar discomfort now exists about Mitt Romney, who, for someone with such a thin political resume, has generated a terabyte's worth of sound bites that show him to be on both sides of many issues and making other statements that portray him as anything but "severely" conservative. The unease that the party has with Romney is mitigated by the fact that the political chattering class and the GOP establishment is not sold on either Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich as a viable alternative. While there is some low level buzz around the idea of a brokered convention, the idea of the party exposing itself to that level of dysfunction and throwing an untested candidate into the crucible of a general election with a huge fundraising disadvantage and no policy portfolio is simply not going to happen, no matter how badly talking heads fantasize about it.
So what does all of this mean for Republicans. The collective hissy fit surrounding the Administration's decision about requiring employers to provide contraception was curiously timed, coming hot on the heels of the January jobs number, which showed 243,000 private sector jobs created (another 14,000 public sector jobs were lost, but Republicans don't really care about public workers) and upward revisions to the job numbers from November and December. In all, the United States is closing in on 2 straight years of positive job growth (even with nearly 1 million fewer public sector jobs) and an economy that appears to be turning the corner. Republicans' response? It would be even better if Obama's policies were not in place and it was worse than it had to be before it got better. Yeah, have fun with that.
Unfortunately for Romney, who has pegged his entire campaign on the economy, these numbers, and more importantly, the longer-term trends, do not auger well for his ability to litigate a case of economic failure in the general election (his "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" op/ed is probably not helpful either). His inability to articulate a broader vision for the country or a legitimate rationale for his own candidacy can be seen in his ever changing stump speeches and messaging. Moreover, as Santorum appropriately mentioned, Romney's success in the primaries has been predicated in part on his huge financial advantage, something that won't exist in the general election.
While there is a chance that Romney could collapse and Santorum (or Gingrich) could beat him, Romney must still be considered the betting favorite if for no other reason than the reasons the conventional wisdom continue to cite - money and electability. The problem Republicans will find in putting their chips on the Romney bet is that it's unlikely to pay off and in fact, as the election draws closer, I would not at all be surprised if conservatives decide to sit on their hands and wait things out until 2016.
Why would conservatives backtrack on their stated goal of making Obama a one-term President? A few reasons quickly come to mind:
First, the fate of "Obamacare" will be determined before the election. The Supreme Court is hearing oral argument on the Affordable Care Act in late March and will, unless something extraordinary happens (e.g., death of a Justice), issue its ruling in June. If the Court upholds the individual mandate, the matter will be resolved and running to "repeal" Obamacare will lose a lot of its steam. Conversely, if the Court strikes down the individual mandate (or the Act in totality), that too, would take the issue off the table. If anything, the Court's striking down, whether its partial or full, of the ACA might hurt Republicans because parts of the law that are widely popular, like allowing kids to stay on their parents' health care plans until age 26 and prohibiting insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, would potentially go away. In short, the heat that is generated by health care is going to be dramatically less come the end of June.
Second, if anything has been learned from Obama's first term in office is that Republicans can successfully stonewall the President's agenda from Congress. In 2012, even if the House falls back into Democratic hands, the Senate is likely to be even closer to 50-50, or, potentially switch to the Republicans, but one thing it will not be is anywhere close to a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. If the top of the ticket is weak, conservative Republicans can comfort themselves knowing that Mitch McConnell will still pull every parliamentary trick in the book and that Harry Reid, if he is still the majority leader, will refuse to tweak the rules to stop him from doing it. While any President in his second term can start solidifying the policy gains made during the first term, a Republican Congress, or even a minority in the Senate, can slow that momentum. Moreover, the party out of power tends to gain seats during the off-year election (2014) in the other party's second term (think Democratic gains in 1986 and 2006), which would slow Obama's policy efforts even more.
Third, Republicans perceive that their political bench is deep in 2016 and may be uncomfortable committing to Romney until 2020 (if he wins and then runs for a second term). If conservative Republicans are not sold on Romney's bona fides, why would they want him to be their standard bearer for the next eight years when a litany of politicians, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and others are waiting in the wings to run in four years. As long as Congressional Republicans fight a rear guard action to slow Obama down, conservatives might be willing to hold off until 2016 when they can help nominate someone who truly shares their values and beliefs.
Finally, and this ties in closely to the third point, winning a general election against the other party is usually easier when there is no incumbent on the ballot. Conservatives may come to the simple conclusion that recent history indicates that the American people generally do not award either party a "third" term (GHWB in '88 notwithstanding), that the Democratic field in 2016 may not be that strong (Martin O'Malley? Mark Warner?) unless either Hilary Clinton or Governor Cuomo runs and thus, holding off until 2016 makes sense. For those who think this type of "long war" philosophy may not hold, keep in mind that the conservative ascendency that occurred with Reagan's win in 1980 was predicated on Barry Goldwater's annihilation in the 1964 general election. Conservatives felt snubbed by George H.W. Bush and then got a more than acceptable President (from their point of view) in his son, eight years later. Indeed, Bush's loss in 1992 may have been good for the right wing cause because it removed a politician they did not see as sufficiently conservative. The same may be true this year.
Of course, all of this speculation will be moot if Romney does not win the nomination, but an improving economy and foreign policy successes (killing of Bin Laden, Libya, Iraq withdrawal, etc.) will leave very little for Republicans to run on against Obama. In that case, I have no doubt the right wing "tea party" types will happily sacrifice Romney on the electoral altar to get a chance at nominating who they think is a "true" conservative four years from now.