Political Animal


September 21, 2012 9:29 AM Home To Roost

By Ed Kilgore

As a useful corrective to the Beltway tendency to over-attribute political trends to the last two or three things that have happened, but without falling prey to the zombie-eyed indifference to actual politics of the social science Fundamentalists, Ron Browstein’s latest column for National Journal traces Mitt Romney’s struggles to specific strategic decisions he made during the primaries:

Of all Romney’s primary-season decisions, the most damaging was his choice to repel the challenges from Perry and Gingrich by attacking them from the right—and using immigration as his cudgel. That process led Romney to embrace a succession of edgy, conservative positions anathema to many Hispanics, including denouncing Texas for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants; praising Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law; and, above all, promising to make life so difficult for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants that they would “self-deport….”

But that’s not all. Having limited his potential vote among Hispanics, Romney also hemmed himself in among certain categories of white voters:

Romney’s inability to dent Obama’s support among Hispanics (or other minorities) means the GOP nominee probably can’t win without attracting at least 61 percent of white voters. Yet a second early decision has greatly compounded that challenge. Through the primaries, Romney embraced an unreservedly conservative social agenda (such as defunding Planned Parenthood and allowing employers to deny contraception coverage in health insurance plans), especially after Santorum emerged as his principal rival. That positioning helps explain why polls consistently show Obama drawing a majority of college-educated white women—not only the most socially liberal sector of the white electorate but also the fastest-growing. If Obama can hold a majority of those women and match his 80 percent with all minorities in 2008, Romney would have to carry two-thirds of all other whites to win—as much as Ronald Reagan won among those remaining voters in his 1984 landslide.

Brownstein also notes that Romney endorsed a 20% high-end tax cut as he was trying to nail down the nomination, and wrongly concluded that his ability to survive attacks on his record at Bain Capital among sympathetic primary voters inoculated him on that issue. All in all, Romney won the nomination in a way that made a general election victory far more difficult than it might have been.

Romney’s decisions during the primaries also reflected a conspicuous lack of confidence that he could impose his will on his party. Instead, he serially accommodated himself to the cresting demands of a GOP base that emerged from the 2010 election excessively confident that the country was ready for the most conservative agenda since at least Reagan in 1980. If Obama wins a second term despite all his vulnerabilities, that ideological hubris will loom larger than any of Romney’s flubs and stumbles now.

Regular readers know this is pretty close to my take for many months now: the big story of the 2012 cycle is the radical lurch of the GOP led by an excited activist “base” convinced it’s within striking distance of reversing much of the progressive policy legacy of the last century. It’s wound up with a presidential nominee it doesn’t like or trust, so it has made and even now continues to make demands on him that make a general election appeal exceptionally difficult. Self-constrained ideologically while possessing zero moral compunctions, the Romney campaign is relying as always on vast sums of money backing ever-more-violent and heavily-targeted assaults on his opponent.

The way I’ve been putting it lately is that Mitt Romney’s sick relationship with his own party is dominating a contest that was supposed to (from a Republican point of view) be “about” Obama and the economy. Romney can still slither his way through the minefield he’s created for himself, but Brownstein’s right, he can’t undo his “original sins” from the primaries.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • del on September 21, 2012 9:51 AM:

    Now Ed, you heard Ann say "Stop It" right? You've just got to stop telling the truth and criticising her husband. After all, we are "lucky" to have him running. Yes, the words, the thoughts, the deeds are coming home to roost. Keep up the good work and continue not to listen to Ann.

  • DRF on September 21, 2012 9:51 AM:

    Brownstein makes it seem as though Romney had a choice, and chose badly. But the fact is that the path he chose was the only path to the nomination and to election. Had Romney positioned himself as a moderate Republican, he would likely have not been nominated; there just aren't enough moderates in the Republican Party to prevail. And he certainly would have lost the general election, having alienated the hardcore activist rightwing base of the GOP.

    Romney's problem now isn't really about choices he made during primary season. His problems are three-fold: (1) He's not a likeable candidate; (2) Smart guy that he's supposed to be, he's remarkably inept as a politician and as a candidate (and why that is is a whole other story); and (3) most importantly, his party has moved so far to the right that it is now a distinctly minority party, and Romney is unable to appeal to the center (as he must do in order to win) without alienating the base (which he can't afford to do if he wants to win). This last problem would exist regardless of who the Republican candidate is.

  • steve on September 21, 2012 10:01 AM:

    Romney is a terrible candidate. He's gotten this far because of money rather than friends, organization, ideals. This year the WH is not for sale. Maybe next time.

  • c u n d gulag on September 21, 2012 10:02 AM:

    Mitt the spider, wove a web that's trapped him.

    It couldn't happen to a nicer insect!*

    *And yes, I know, spiders are Arachnids, not Insects

    But why let 'class" get in the way of a good metaphor.

    Metaphor's aren't only for cows. ;-)

  • Honeyboy Wilson on September 21, 2012 10:11 AM:

    Americans have very short memories. Most if not all Obama commercials should be showing Romney making the statements he made during the primaries. Those commercials would literally make themselves.

  • Kathryn on September 21, 2012 10:18 AM:

    The only factor that keeps Mitt in this race at all is, well, race. He gets to reinvent himself and fail every few days because he is white. By the way, why isn't he being mocked for the obvious spray tan at the Univision event. Seriously, what could be more lame and condescending than speaking to the Hispanic television community in brown face? Oh to be a fly ion the wall at Romney HQ.

  • sjw on September 21, 2012 10:29 AM:

    Yesterday I was in a conversation with an independent voter who's supporting Romney (also loves John Stossel on Fox, and has strong libertarian leanings). He told me that Romney was "a lousy candidate" and that Obama "would probably win." I just nodded and smiled. I also found this interesting: he criticized Republicans for their "moral" agenda. Abortion, drugs, gay marriage -- my interlocutor was fine with all of them and wished Romney hadn't hardened his stance on these issues because it would have made him a stronger candidate.

  • SteveT on September 21, 2012 10:30 AM:

    So the theory is that if Romney hadn't maneuvered himself to the right of Dopey, Grumpy, Doc and the other dwarfs and had injected a bit of sanity into the Republican primary, then he would be in a better position in the general election?

    How'd that strategy work out for John Huntsman?

    Romney did what he had to to win over the bat-guano crazy Republican primary voters. If a few things hadn't broken Obama's way, like European leaders backing away from sending the Euro zone into depression in the name of economic doctrinal purity, Romney would be pulling away right now.

    As it is, Democrats (and the country) are just lucky that Romney is such a lousy candidate who is too separated from the world of the 99 Percent to understand how pervasive video recording devices are.

  • FlipYrWhig on September 21, 2012 10:30 AM:

    I still think that analyses like these give Romney too much leeway, treating him as at heart a moderate who due to unforeseen circumstances was compelled to move right to capture the imagination of his party's crazies. I don't think that's true. I think Romney is at heart someone with no particular ideology who wants to extract money from gullible people. In other words, a con artist. He's just not slick enough these days to keep the con going.

  • James E. Powell on September 21, 2012 10:32 AM:

    Too much of this sounds like "Romney's a decent guy, but he had to make some tactical decisions that cost him." Let's understand that the speech to donors in Boca did not reveal who Romney is, but confirmed what we already knew. He's a plutocrat who only cares about himself and other plutocrats.

    @Honeyboy Wilson - I would expect those TV ads to start running the week before the debate. I will be very disappointed if I don't see them.

  • FlipYrWhig on September 21, 2012 10:34 AM:

    @ sjw : Your friend suffers from the "all voters are like me" affliction. Sure, _he_ wants a libertarian who's moderate on social issues. But not enough people feel that way to make that kind of candidate viable. Also, tell him that John "But wait a minute!" Stossel is terrible, and has been for at least 20 consecutive years.

  • boatboy_srq on September 21, 2012 10:40 AM:

    I see SteveT and I had the same thought.

    Brownstein is essentially saying that out of the 2012 GOP primary candidates, only Huntsman had a chance to win the general election, and he didn't stand a chance in the primary (essentially "if only Romney had campaigned on the same platform planks as Huntsman, he wouldn't be in the pickle he's in now.") The option to pivot left evaporated when Bachmann and Santorum started winning major primaries, and it became clear the base didn't want anyone willing to be reasonable.

    The GOTea wanted a wingnut culture warrior gubmint-drowner for its candidate this cycle. They're pissed because they can't trust the amoral opportunistic worm they got (just as the rest of us never trusted him to begin with). Quelle surprise.

  • BillFromPA on September 21, 2012 10:42 AM:

    I have to slightly disagree with those here who say Mittens had no choice at all in his Primary approach. Certainly, he had to toe a certain line with the 'Baggers, but he could have done so in a much less self-destructive way. I can't count the times he openly made statements, admitting to be the bastard father of Obamacare, claiming that the auto bailout was his idea, etc, only to be slapped back into line, publically, by the wingnuts.

    He never had a chance at us, the 'Baggers are underwhelmed by him and being tugged hard right by a dog collar destroys any cahnce of getting enough swing voters. He cpould have quietly kissed the ring of the far right and avoided self inflicted damage, but thankfully, he's the most incompetent Pres candidate I've ever seen, and my first vote ever was for George McGovern.

  • Gandalf on September 21, 2012 11:01 AM:

    @sjw- I know a number of people like your friend and they are not really independent voters. There really former republicans who are just to embarassed to call themselves republicans anymore.

  • James E. Powell on September 21, 2012 11:09 AM:

    @ BillFromPA - I agree with you. I also believe that if he had run a 'moderate' campaign, triangulating against his own party's fringe, he could still have pounded his opponents into the ground with his tremendous money advantage.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on September 21, 2012 11:57 AM:

    Who doesn't already know this?

  • FlipYrWhig on September 21, 2012 12:21 PM:

    @ James E. Powell, I think that if he had tried that, Rick Perry would have won handily, or, if not Perry, someone else who could position himself as The Real Conservative while hoovering up big fat checks (like, for instance, Mike Huckabee or Scott Walker). Republican primary voters don't want a moderate.

  • Jim Keating on September 21, 2012 2:28 PM:

    Money is not going to help Romney; he lives in a glass house and the democrats have so much on him they will be
    able to produces sniped after sniped that will keep him
    on the defensive until the election. The dems will be able to produce truths of his wrongdoings and his advertising will consist of only lies, out of context, and unbelievable contrived wrongdoings of Obama. Mr Romney
    is history.

  • Jim Keating on September 21, 2012 2:30 PM:

    Money is not going to help Romney; he lives in a glass house and the democrats have so much on him they will be
    able to produces sniped after sniped that will keep him
    on the defensive until the election. The dems will be able to produce truths of his wrongdoings and his advertising will consist of only lies, out of context, and unbelievable contrived wrongdoings of Obama. Mr Romney
    is history.