The modern Republican party might as well have Sun Tzu as its mascot- the party moves tactically, and often with far greater alacrity, than Democrats. To take just a few examples, President George W. Bush "won" a highly contested race in 2000 with fewer popular votes than Al Gore, but successfully rammed through a major tax cut within six months of his inauguration. Republicans venerate Ronald Reagan as a small government conservative while blithely ignoring the 11 tax increases he signed while President. When in the opposition, Republicans counter punch with devastating effect. In 1994, they took back the House after 40 years in the minority and in 2010 they added more House seats (63) than any election since 1938. Finally, they understand the "long war." Barry Goldwater may have been sacrificed at the electoral altar in 1964, but the landslide that crushed him reversed itself 16 years later when Ronald Reagan was elected President. The 30 plus years since then have resulted in a cementing of conservative orthodoxy in the Republican Party and, in Democratic circles, a moderation that has resulted in a rightward shift of the entire political debate in this country.
So what does this all have to do with Willard Mitt Romney and the 2012 Presidential election? Everything. The ever growing conservative wing of the Republican Party never warmed to Romney. Before the primary season, boomlets for everyone from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush rose and fell as each begged off a run for the White House. Once the primaries were set, conservatives elevated (literally) every single one of Romney's opponents to front runner status before Romney's numbing barrage of negative ads, perceived inevitability and his opponents' sloppy performances did them in.
That the right wing took to Romney with about as much enthusiasm as a child does to a teaspoon of castor oil is not an understatement, but swallow they did when he sewed up the nomination. Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich made appropriate niceties, and conservative commentators like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, who had been dismissive of Romney were suddenly on board. Romney's polling improved and the mainstream media dutifully picked up the "this race is going to be very close" meme and ran with it. It appeared we were settling in for a campaign that would be nip and tuck, with minor variations in polling but little chance of one candidate or the other breaking out.
And then .. well, the summer happened and the Obama team ju jitsued Romney on everything from his failure to release his tax returns to his sketchy business dealings while he was CEO of Bain Capital. The media should be credited (in part) as well, after all, they did some actual reporting on Mitt's complicated exit from Bain, occasionally called him out for his advertising falsehoods and got miffed at Romney's imperiousness toward them. Romney did himself no favors either, from a weak sauce European trip that managed to offend nearly every constituency he met with and ended with one of his press aides telling a member of the press to "shove it" to his stonewalling on why he won't release more of his tax returns.
The final straw for conservatives appears to have occurred earlier this week. In the wake of an ad by the President's Super PAC that featured a man who was laid off from a company taken over by Bain and whose wife ended up dying of cancer because neither of them could secure health insurance after she lost her job, a Romney spokeswoman essentially responded that had the couple lived in Massachusetts, the wife would have been able to get coverage through "Romenycare." Perfectly sensible, if a bit of a non-sequitur response, but nevertheless, the right wing had an absolute meltdown. Influential blogger Erick Erickson tweeted "OMG. This might be the moment Mitt Romney lost the election." Coulter laced into Romney on Sean Hannity's TV show, calling for donors to stop giving money to his campaign until he fires Ms. Saul (the video is worth your time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CvO3tTqznc) and the inevitable "DUMP ROMNEY" campaign was launched by former supporters of Rick Santorum.
So what gives? Why are conservatives already jumping ship before Romney has picked a Vice Presidential running mate, delivered his convention speech or stood on a stage debating the President? Some of it may have to do with those polls, which are slowly, but inexorably, moving in Obama's favor. Some of it may have to do with the sprinkling of good economic news recently that, if it continues, will make Romney's effort to unseat President Obama that much harder, but mostly, I think it is because if you hooked up right wing types to lie detectors (spare me the jokes), they would tell you that Romney's lack of policy coherency (he's described himself as "to the left" of Ted Kennedy on gay rights (1994) to having been a "severely conservative" Governor (2012)) means he cannot be trusted, even if, as Grover Norquist suggested, all the right wing needs is Romney to sign the bills they want enacted into law.
Consider that Romney passed an assault weapon ban in Massachusetts just a few years before he became a lifetime member of the NRA; he lambasted Obama for reviewing welfare waivers that were identical to one Romney submitted to the federal government when he was Governor; and criticized Obama for requiring contraception to be included in health plans, while the same mandate was required under his health care law in Massachusetts. And on and on it could go, literally, for pages, highlighting all the places Romney has flip flopped on issues. As long as Romney looked competitive with Obama, the Ann Coulters of the world were willing to hold their nose and support him, but with this steady accumulation of policy gaffes, communications blunders and general ineptitude, the long knives are out.
And that's where the Republican belief in the "long war" really comes into play. You see, if Mitt is circling the drain in October, the right wing will drop him like a hot potato and focus on more winnable down ballot races to help ensure they retain control of the House and either take control of the Senate or keep chipping away at the Democrats 53-47 majority. For conservatives, the calculus is pretty simple - even if Obama wins, they did a great job of blocking or, at a minimum, slowing down, many of his first-term initiatives, there's no reason they can't continue doing so for another four years. And even if Democrats win the House and retain control of the Senate, Republicans have no fear that Harry Reid will modify the filibuster rule because both parties understand they want that tool when they are in the minority. Meanwhile, Republicans being elected to Congress are, as a general matter, more conservative than the people they are replacing, a phenomenon that has been underway in the House for some time but is now migrating to the Senate, where candidates like Ted Cruz and Richard Mourdock stand good chances of replacing more "moderate" Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Richard Lugar.
More importantly, true believers on the right will be more than happy to sacrifice Romney if it means being able to nominate someone in 2016 with "pure" conservative credentials. In the past 100 years, neither party, with the exception of 1988 and the Democrats' freakish run in the 1930s-40s, has won three consecutive elections (though some of us would argue 2000 should count as well) and the genuine affection leading conservatives have for people like Marco Rubio, Christie and Paul Ryan (not even mentioning Jeb Bush, who I personally think will run and win the nomination) would argue against going all out for Romney, who, if he won, would close the door to anyone else until 2020. The right wing entered into a marriage of convenience with Mitt. Right now, it looks like they are heading for a divorce.