Don't Let Conservatives Blame Mitt Romney for Their Woes

Sure, he's a deeply flawed candidate. But it's blatant scapegoating to blame him for the GOP's lackluster primary season.

Mitt Romney at McDonnell office - AP Photo:Pablo Martinez Monsivais - banner.jpg

Conceding that Mitt Romney's candidacy "is better than it was four years ago," Mark Steyn nevertheless asserts that it's embarrassingly inept, and makes this claim: "The nature of this peculiar primary season -- the reason it seems at odds with both the 2009-2010 political narrative and the seriousness of the times -- was determined by Mitt Romney. Even if you don't mind Romneycare, or the abortion flip-flop, or any of the rest, there's a more basic problem: He's not a natural campaigner, and on the stump he instinctively recoils from any personal connection with voters. So, in compensation, he's bought himself a bunch of A-list advisers."

Though I'll not defend Romney's charisma, I must object to any effort to pin on him blame for the GOP's lackluster primary season. If it has seemed at odds with the seriousness of the times, surely that is better explained by the early flirtation with Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, the absurdity of Herman "9-9-9" Cain's campaign, the Texas governor who forgot one of the federal agencies he sought to eliminate before calling Turkey's leaders radical Islamists, and the spectacle of Newt Gingrich, who grandstanded about the importance of character during the Clinton scandals, now feigning outrage that the media would dare delve into his infidelities. Nor does it end there. Was Romney party to any of 2011's most discrediting moments?

Whatever one thinks of Romney, no one forced Republicans to make him their frontrunner. Guys like Steyn are loath to say anything critical about the Tea Party or movement conservatism's rank-and-file, but that wing of the GOP coalition's spectacular failure to produce a viable candidate cannot go forever ignored. The frivolity of the campaign has been determined by the pathologies of the conservative movement much more than the individual failings of Romney. The most depressing thing -- for the GOP and the United States -- is that Romney, whose flaws Steyn correctly discerns, is among the least clownish choices. It makes no sense to insist he determined the course of events while totally ignoring his opponents and the factors that led to their runs.

The conceit that neither the Tea Party nor the conservative movement nor its "thought leaders" bear blame for anything, ever, causes writers who adopt it to conveniently forget a lot. Romney is a frontrunner today partly due to a well-financed campaign, but much more important is the foundation of support he built up while running for the presidency four years ago, when he was endorsed by National Review and Rush Limbaugh, among many other Republicans. It's history that matters a lot more than his crop of "A-list advisers" and "lavish campaign." 

Back then, Steyn too was a fan of Romney and respected his campaign. As he put it at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2008, "I had the pleasure of introducing Mitt about a year ago. I liked him very much. I thought he was a terrific candidate with excellent qualifications to be president."

In a February 2008 column he put it this way:

That was part of the problem with Mitt's campaign: When the sheet music came rolling off the fax machine from the Romney press office, it looked great. Good policies on the economy, national security, social issues -- all three legs of the Republican coalition. But, when Mitt put the sheet up on the stand and started to sing, it wasn't quite what the broader GOP electorate wanted to hear. The governor is a smart, talented, successful man, but he has a clean-cut mien and he says "Golly!" quite a lot. I found that goofily endearing. When someone raised the old polygamy question about Mormons, Mitt could have snidely pointed out that, in contrast to certain New York mayors and Arizona senators, he was the only candidate still on his first wife, but instead he just took Mrs. R's hand and said "Golly, I hate polygamy" I don't know whether I'd want to be married to someone who said "Golly!" quite that often, but that's Mitt: not a polygamist, but a gollygamist.

A decisive chunk of the Republican primary electorate didn't find this goofily endearing. When Mitt stood up and warbled, they didn't like his tune. They wanted something meaner and rawer and tougher, and there was John McCain.

Come 2012, Romney's rhetoric is certainly meaner, rawer, and tougher. And Steyn himself says he likes Romney's 2012 campaign better than he liked the 2008 campaign, which he said nice things about at the time. So it sure seems like blaming Romney now for an insufficiently serious primary season is scapegoating more than confronting what the right must do in order to run better candidates. Romney has sacrificed his self-respect as much as any politician in memory to say whatever it is that the Republican electorate wants to hear. He's holding up a mirror. If you're a movement conservative who doesn't like what's being reflected back but don't have any better alternative to offer, or a plan for getting one, it's likely your fault as much as his.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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