The collective Republican establishment take down of Newt Gingrich in the wake of Newt's win in South Carolina is without precedent in the modern GOP. The reality of the 2012 nominating process is curious though. The man for whom everyone from Matt Drudge to Charles Krauthammer are now carrying water underperformed his vote tally from Iowa in 2008, won an expected victory in New Hampshire (a neighboring state to his adopted home of Massachusetts and a place he invested enormous resources) and got creamed in South Carolina. All of this against a weaker stable of candidates than he ran against in 2008 who have a small percentage of the financial resources Romney has at his disposal. Inexplicably (and laughably), they now want to proclaim Florida as a make or break for the nomination even though no candidate has accumulated more than 5% of the delegates needed to win it.
So what gives? My own theory is that having created the Frankenstein monster of blind hatred and rage toward government generally and President Obama specifically, the political chickens are trying to come home to roost and the establishment, having stoked the flames of Tea Party hatred, are desperately trying to control the monster before it rages out of control and does something the "adults" in the party think they will do if left to their own devices - nominate Newton Leroy Gingrich for President. In the balance, instead of building Romney up and allowing him to move toward the center, the attack machine the establishment has unleashed is bringing Romney down by essentially saying that his political apostasies notwithstanding, Gingrich cannot win and therefore must be destroyed. Quite a thank you for a guy who swept Republicans back to power in the House in 1994.
Romney's faults would not be nearly as damning were he not stretching to prove his conservative bona fides. Indeed, should Romney eventually claim the nomination, the idea that Gingrich and others have made him a better candidate will be proven wrong. While commentators are lamenting the number of debates the Republicans have had, they also pass along the conventional wisdom that the debates have made Romney a better candidate. The reality is that in the first 10 or so debates that the Republicans held, Romney took little incoming fire, his opponents were more focused on each other than him. Once debate fire started wheeling toward him, Romney was uncertain and shaky, making odd gaffes like the "$10,000 bet" and his now famous 184 word answer about when (or if) he would release his tax forms. While it is true that Romney performed well in the 2 debates between South Carolina and Florida, much of that "performance" was pounding on Gingrich with canned talking points about immigration and financial investments. Even so, when challenged by Rick Santorum on "Romneycare," most agreed Romney looked weak and he also looked oily and fake when feigning ignorance about a Spanish-language ad he claimed he could not remember being made by his campaign. Against a polished and articulate opponent like President Obama, Romney will not have the luxury of his gaffes being downplayed or his misstatements failing to be slammed.
There is no question that if a more acceptable (to the establishment, anyway) conservative alternative existed, Romney's weaknesses would likely not be so easily ignored. In fact, the hand wringing that still exists about trying to find an authentic conservative alternative to Romney even at this late date speaks poorly of Romney's ability to marshal those forces if he does win the nomination. More damning, Romney will also be handicapped by the policy positions he has taken in an effort to pander to the right wing of the base that will never trust him. While the "Ryan Plan" may be an article of faith among the true believers in the Republican party, try spinning the privatization of Medicare to the 80% of Americans who like and support it. By toggling to a staunchly pro-life position (even coming out in support of Mississippi's "personhood" amendment) , Romney may have curried favor with the Santorum crowd, but try telling a socially moderate electorate in the suburbs that you think the protection of life begins at conception.
Romney's ability to tear down what was essentially a minor league level of political talent will do him no favors once a general election starts. While Gingrich is mercurial and not well-managed, rest assured that the Obama team knows how to exploit weakness in its opponents, will turn around ads and media that take advantage of Romney gaffes and will have a concerted, well funded and ruthless focus on taking the less savory parts of Romney's biography and turn them against him. Moreover, by leaning so far right on some positions, if Romney toggles back toward the center, he'll merely be reinforcing the belief among conservatives that he vacillates and is politically expedient, which may depress turnout. In the political calculus that die hard Republicans make, they may prefer to hold off to 2016 while working to keep a majority in Congress that will continue to box Obama in, instead of accepting that Romney would carry the Republican banner through 2020.
For Romney, the inconvenient truth of his work at Bain, where he trumpets the creation of companies like The Sports Authority, Staples and Dominos, may work well in Republican primaries, but these are companies that feed off of a less educated, non-unionized employment base where lower skills (and wages) are accepted. Whether coincidentally or not, states with the lowest educational levels tend to vote Republican (at the national level) and also are typically the most virulently anti-union. That's not to criticize companies like The Sports Authority, but it is to say that when President Obama hits hard on manufacturing and high technology as keys to our future, Romney defending service jobs with less financial stability, union protection or meaningful career advancement is a far cry from the "middle class" jobs of a generation ago that were manufacturing based, unionized and afforded people the types of opportunities for home ownership, a college education for their children and a stable retirement that we all think are part of the American Dream.
When grasping for analogies to this year's race, I took a look at the 1996 GOP race and saw a lot of similarities but without the compelling conservative alternative. Mitt Romney is Bob Dole, but unlike Romney, Dole had no compelling challenger who could be looked at as President. While Pat Buchanan and his pitchfork brigade won New Hampshire, Buchanan, who had never held elective office, was not viewed seriously by most of the electorate and therefore, did not get attacked like Newt is this year. Steve Forbes was a better funded and just as unpolished candidate as Herman Cain (complete with his own version of "9-9-9" the flat tax), Bob Dornan was Michelle Bachmann before Michelle Bachmann, Phil Gramm was a well funded Texan with no message a la Rick Perry and several 1996 candidates (Lugar, Specter, Wilson) could be Tim Pawlenty.
While both the 1996 and 2012 primaries occurred in the wake of "wave" elections that returned Republicans to Congressional power, a key difference exists between the former and the latter. In 1996, mobilizing disaffected, virulently anti-government Republicans did not happen largely because that segment of the party was fringe and small. Today, it is vibrant and mainstream, with a vessel (the amorphous "tea party") through which it speaks. The pitchfork brigade that rallied to Buchanan in 1996 was a small band of voters who were easily washed away by the Establishment. Today, the tea party has a far stronger presence in the Republican party. While some of that energy has been co-opted, true conservatives, when given a choice between a guy like Gingrich, who at least has the credential of leading the GOP from the wilderness and into power in 1996 and Romney, who voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Massachusetts Democratic primary, campaigned in 1994 as a pro-choice, pro-gay rights social moderate and whose politics are as malleable as his hair is rigid, will pick Gingrich over Romney every time.
In many ways, today's tea party resembles nothing more than a modern version of the "southern strategy" created by Nixon that channeled the cultural resentment of blue collar whites by railing against the media, the counter-culture and peaceniks and was perfected by Ronald Reagan. Of course, Nixon called for universal health care in 1974 and Reagan passed some of the biggest tax increases in modern history, but those ideas are relegated to the dustbin of conservative history. Today, Gingrich's "dog whistle" of calling Obama the "food stamp President" and zeroing in on issues like White House "czars" and "Saul Alinsky" tactics speak to the blind hatred of hard core conservatives, all of which was ginned up and supported when it was trained against Democrats in 2009 and 2010. Of course, were he ever elected, it is unlikely Gingrich would implement many tea party concepts, but he embraces them nonetheless. Conversely, Romney understands that this type of vituperation is untenable in a general election where more than 50% of voters turn out, not the less than 40% for mid-term elections, and they include far more socially moderate voters who are turned off by mindless ideology.
That some so-called "Tea Party" politicians have endorsed Romney says much less about the "tea party" movement than the political expediency of politicians - which is to say that that particular trait is not unique to either party. What the grass roots of the "tea party" is quickly learning is that those they elected to office are not as doctrinaire as they hoped and not as committed to the change as they paid lip service to to get elected ($100 billion cut in the federal budget? Never mind. Repealing Obamacare. Not going to happen.). As the split between "country club" Republicans and "tea party" Republicans becomes more obvious, the cleaving between the Herman Cains and Sarah Palins of the Republican party and the John McCains and Bob Doles is becoming clearer. Ironically, the more establishment sentiment gels around Romney, the more resentment the tea party types will feel. Perhaps it is just desserts for a party that looked the other way at cries of "terrorist" in 2008, held rallies where the President was portrayed as Hitler and an African witch doctor, gave a wink and a nod to the "birther" movement and who called the President a liar during a nationally-televised speech to a joint session of Congress.
That establishment Republicans are essentially trying to dismantle the monster of their own creation is both humorous and ironic. When the channeling of tea party rage was directed at incumbent Democrats, the establishment of the Republican party, along with its media echo chamber (FOX News) was more than happy to hop aboard. When the monster turned on Republicans in South Carolina, all of the sudden everyone decided that it was time to protect the institutional wing of the party and go nuclear on Newt Gingrich. With all of the effort they are making to drag Romney across the finish line, do not be surprised when they experience buyer's remorse come November. Conversely, while it is equally possible Gingrich would lose, there is no question that the base of the party wants to support someone who will draw sharp contrasts with the President. Romney may lose gracefully like Dole or McCain, but Gingrich could be either Reagan or Goldwater. The risk/reward is much higher with Gingrich, but the dispassion felt towards Romney suggests he will have great difficulty inspiring large Republican turnout while suffering from losing moderates who will be turned off to the politics he has embraced to secure the nomination.