As often as not, parties nominate candidates for president that pretty much all their own partisans acknowledge are less than inspiring. Democrats were so excited about Barack Obama in 2008 partly because their previous two nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore, rode to the nomination on a stirring sentiment of “Well, OK, I guess.” The same happened to Republicans, who adored the easygoing George W. Bush after the grim candidacies of Bob Dole and Bush’s father. And now that Mitt Romney has suffered through an awful few weeks—a mediocre convention, an embarrassing response to the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, then the release of the “47 percent” video in which Romney accused almost half of America of refusing to “take responsibility for their own lives”—the knives have come out.
First it was a widely-shared Politico story full of intramural Romney campaign sniping, most directed at chief strategist Stuart Stevens (the article full of anonymous backstabbing is the hallmark of a struggling campaign, as mid-level staffers explain to reporters how everything would be going better if they were in charge). Then came a parade of criticism from prominent conservative commentators. Peggy Noonan called the Romney campaign a “rolling calamity.” David Brooks responded to the 47 percent comment by sounding like Romney himself talking about Barack Obama: “It suggests that Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America.” Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said Romney and others in his party “mouth libertarian nonsense, unable to even describe some of the largest challenges of our time.” William Kristol called Romney’s remarks “arrogant and stupid” and asked, “Has there been a presidential race in modern times featuring two candidates who have done so little over their lifetimes for our country, and who have so little substance to say about the future of our country?” Sarah Palin even got into the act, encouraging Romney and Paul Ryan to “go rogue” to revive their campaign, though whom she thought they should rebel against (themselves?) was unclear. Romney’s problems even trickled down to other races, as one Republican Senate candidate after another rushed to distance themselves from Romney’s dismissal of the 47 percent. No wonder the strain of removing sharp implements from her husband’s back led Ann Romney to tell conservatives, “Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring.” It’s a little late for that though; Republicans are stuck with Romney whether they like it or not. And they’re making sure everyone knows they don’t.
Romney is not yet doomed, of course. Something might happen to upend the campaign and convince large numbers of people to change their votes. But an Obama victory remains more likely than not, which means that a few months from now Republicans will be telling each other that they saw it coming all along.
It isn’t hard to figure out what they’ll be saying. The first explanation for their loss will be a strategic one. “I worked for the Romney campaign,” Republicans will say, “but they never took my advice.” He should have spent more time talking about the economy, or more time talking about social issues. He should have worked harder to win Hispanic votes, or spent more resources on the ground game and less on television ads. He was too vague in his policy prescriptions, not giving America enough of a sense of what he wanted to do.
And of course, they’ll say the news media were hopelessly biased against Romney, elevating every one of his mistakes and ignoring the self-evidently horrifying things Obama said. (Did you know that once, 14 years ago, Obama used the word “redistribution” favorably? I mean, come on!) Forever seeing ideological bias when the truth is that those trailing in the polls get negative coverage and those leading get positive coverage (a kind of bias in itself, but not the kind conservatives mean), they are practiced at blaming their own failures on the media.
On the fringes, they’ll say Democrats cheated, something they’ve believed in the past and will no doubt believe in the future (in late 2009, one poll found that a majority of Republicans believed ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama). The idea that a majority of voters willingly chose this president conservatives despise so fervently strikes them as simply impossible, so there must have been a secret conspiracy assuring his election. This year the only voting conspiracy is no secret; it’s the coordinated Republican effort to put as many roadblocks as possible between Democratic voters and the polls, from photo ID requirements to purging rolls of voters whose names suggest they might just be non-citizens. Yet should Obama win, conservative web sites will trumpet every available story of someone suspicious who cast a ballot, as though it were possible to mobilize millions of voter impersonators to flood the booths.
Then there will be the explanations about Mitt Romney himself, and this is where conservatives will begin to move toward agreement. Some may gently suggest that perhaps a party dogged by a reputation for caring only about the rich could have done better than to nominate a guy with a quarter of a billion dollars whose 2011 tax return was so complex it ran to 379 pages, and who exudes a strange combination of over-eagerness and sheer terror whenever he comes in contact with people whose incomes fall below six figures. But in the end, Republicans will agree that for all Mitt Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate, his real problem was that he just wasn’t conservative enough. As Digby has observed many times, as far as Republicans are concerned, conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed. If Republicans lose at the polls or preside over disastrous policies, the only possible explanation is that they weren’t true enough to their ideology. It may be true that Romney became, in his own words, “severely conservative.” He gave the party’s base everything they wanted (and kept giving it to them long after it became a liability). He adopted their agenda, aligned his policy positions with theirs, and told them whatever he thought they wanted to hear, with sometimes disastrous results (see “47 percent”). But they’ll say the problem was that he didn’t really believeit deep down in his heart, and the voters could tell. If only they had nominated a true conservative, everything would have been different.
There may be a Republican here or there telling the party that they’ve gone astray. Perhaps Christie Whitman will write an op-ed lamenting her party’s turn to the right. But as they have in the past, these voices will be ignored. Republicans will promise never to make the same mistake again. Next time, they’ll pledge, we’ll nominate a real conservative, and our ideological purity will be rewarded at the polls.