The Influential Conservatives Who Haven't Endorsed

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An array of opinion-makers on the right lack sufficient enthusiasm to back any of the Republican candidates for president.

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Influential conservatives could've enhanced the prospects for the candidate they deem most favorable by issuing an endorsement; for the most part, however, movement opinion-makers have refused to go on record in support of anyone. Apparently, ceding their influence has been preferable to championing Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, or Ron Paul.

There are too many movement opinion-makers to grapple with all of their stories. But George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Kristol, and National Review's editorial board are diverse enough to afford a varied look at how conservative influentials have refrained from committing to a candidate.

George Will, Syndicated Columnist

Before Rick Perry got in the race, George Will had nice things to say about him, but like most people who liked the Texas governor on paper, Will hasn't said much since he started trying to debate (his wife works for the Perry campaign). Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman came in for criticism in his July 6 column. In October, Will excoriated Mitt Romney. "Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for this?" he asked. On December 21, he followed up with a column calling Newt Gingrich the anti-conservative: "Atop the Republican ticket, Gingrich would guarantee Barack Obama's re-election, would probably doom Republicans' hopes of capturing the Senate and might cost them control of the House." And Rick Santorum? To the former Pennsylvania senator he applied a surprising adjective: fun. (In a way, it makes sense that a man who thinks of wearing denim as "an obnoxious misuse of freedom" would see Santorum as fun.) Here's how he summed up his candidacy:

If the Republicans' binary choice has arrived, and if new technologies of communication and fundraising are repealing some traditional impediments to fluidity in political competition, Santorum can hope to win the nomination. Yes, in 2006, a ghastly year for Republicans (who lost 30 seats and control of the House, and six Senate seats), Santorum lost by 17 points in his bid for a third term. But, then, Richard Nixon was defeated for governor of California six years before being elected president, carrying California.

Even if Santorum is not nominated, he might galvanize a constituency that makes him a vice presidential choice. For Obama, getting to 270 electoral votes without Pennsylvania's 20 is problematic. But so, just now, are Republican prospects of getting to 270 with their narrowing choice of candidates.

So does he think Santorum is the right choice? Inquiring minds still want to know. Given his failure to endorse and disdain for most of the field, it's no surprise that Will is now downplaying the importance of the election. "Conservatives should stride confidently into 2012. This is not because they are certain, or even likely, to defeat President Obama this year. Rather, it is because, if they emancipate themselves from their unconservative fixation on the presidency, they will see events unfolding in their favor," he writes. "And when Congress is controlled by one party, as it might be a year from now, it can stymie an overreaching executive."

He goes on:

Before this year is many months old, discerning conservatives may decide that Obama probably has been rescued by the Republican nominating electorate and hence it is time to begin focusing on two things other than the 2012 presidential election. One is capturing the Senate. The other is preparing the ground for a better presidential nomination competition in 2016. [Ahem. --CFR]

In any case, nothing that happens this November will bring an apocalypse. America had 43 presidencies before the current one and will have many more than that after the end of this one in 2013 or 2017. Decades hence, it will look like most others, a pebble in the river of U.S. history.

Rush Limbaugh, Talk Radio Host

In 2008, Rush Limbaugh endorsed Mitt Romney for president. "There probably is a candidate on our side who does embody all three legs of the conservative stool, and that's Romney," he said. "The three stools or the three legs of the stool are national security/foreign policy, the social conservatives, and the fiscal conservatives." This election season, he said early on that he wouldn't be endorsing a candidate, and it's easy to understand why: (1) doing so would only anger a portion of his divided audience; (2) endorsing Romney again would prevent Limbaugh from arguing what he'll inevitably insist should the former Massachusetts governor win the primary and lose the general election: that if only the GOP would've nominated an authentic conservative...

At the same time, Limbaugh likes to ingratiate himself to Republican presidents. And they like to return the favor. So no surprise that Romney's wins in Iowa and New Hampshire have coincided with Limbaugh defending him from Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich attacks and columns by John Podhoretz and Jonah Goldberg. He also went out of his way to praise Romney's last speech. What's most worth remarking on, in this case, is that Limbaugh was as well positioned as anyone to elevate a more worthy conservative candidate months ago, before Romney became all but inevitable. For whatever reason, he decided against even trying.

Bill Kristol, Pundit and Would-Be Kingmaker

Bill Kristol was behind John McCain in 2000 and 2008, and was instrumental in elevating Sarah Palin to the would-be VP slot. The key thing to understand about Kristol is that he wants a bigger military and a more aggressive foreign policy that involves new wars in several countries at minimum. His highest priority is presently Iran. But Syria would do. If backing a candidate who already wants military spending hikes and war seems like the most likely path to getting them, he'll do that. If elevating a neophyte whom he can influence seems a more plausible route, that's okay too. If a small-government pol is most hawkish, Kristol will support that pol, and if a big-government pol would buy more guns and start more wars, Kristol will back that pol instead.

Besides all that, Kristol likes to play kingmaker, and for most of the present primary campaign he's been lamenting the limits of the field and hoping aloud that more people would join the race (so long as they don't talk like Ron Paul). When Rick Santorum finished second in Iowa, Kristol appeared on Hugh Hewitt's radio show, where he said this about the Pennsylvania Republican:

KRISTOL: I think he could win the nomination, and could win the presidency, and might well be a pretty good president.

HEWITT: Would you have said that six months ago?

KRISTOL: I probably wouldn't have, but that probably reflects more on me and on my being, like everyone, like so many other people, a little bit too taken, caught up in polling, and taking a snapshot view of things, instead of thinking dynamically.

He also took to the pages of The Weekly Standard, where he wrote:

Mitt Romney, this year's iteration of the establishment candidate, is a decent, serious, and in some ways impressive man. But it's clear a lot of Republicans look at him, his campaign, and his advocates and see the ghosts of establishmentarians past. The question in this cycle has always been whether a viable challenger would emerge. We will now see, in the crucible of an intense campaign, whether Rick Santorum is up to the task of being that challenger.

It seems clear that he prefers Santorum, as well he should given their shared foreign-policy views. Still, he stopped short of an explicit endorsement at what was perhaps the moment of peak momentum for Santorum.

Why?

The National Review Editorial Board

During the 2008 election cycle National Review endorsed Mitt Romney. And during this cycle? In a December 14 editorial titled "Winnowing the Field," the editors made clear their opposition to Newt Gingrich, on whom the most words were spent, dismissed Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, and added this:

Three other candidates deserve serious consideration. Governor Huntsman has a solid record, notwithstanding his sometimes glib foreign-policy pronouncements; his main weakness is his apparent inability, so far, to forge a connection with conservative voters outside Utah. Governor Romney won our endorsement last time, in part because some of the other leading candidates were openly hostile to important elements of conservatism. He is highly intelligent and disciplined, and he takes conservative positions on all the key issues. We still think he would make a fine president, but time and ceaseless effort have not yet overcome conservative voters' skepticism about the liberal aspects of his record and his managerial disposition. Senator Santorum was an effective legislator. He deserves credit for highlighting, more than any other candidate, the need for public policies that topple barriers to middle-class aspirations. Weighing against him is a lack of executive experience.

National Review editors did the most among those discussed here to wield its influence in a way that might have affected the outcome, but still couldn't bring themselves to choose one candidate as the best, or the least bad (though acting as an editorial board, they have the possible excuse of internal division). The Daily Kos isn't generally fair to NR, but its retort rang true enough that a lot of conservatives reading the magazine must have thought something similar: "To put it another way, the candidates they think Republicans should consider are Mitt Romney (who they endorsed in 2008 and say would "make a fine president"), a pair of one-percenters (when it comes to the polls), and a magic pony (who has yet to make an appearance). I can't imagine a weaker vote of confidence in Romney, but I guess he'll take whatever he can get."

Since no one is obligated to make an endorsement, that is the ultimate significance of this trend: it's a sign that there is little enthusiasm for any candidate among a diverse array of influential movement conservatives, and that doesn't portend well for the eventual Republican nominee. He'll have a difficult time generating enthusiasm, and may be tempted to try compensating as John McCain did: by making a risky VP pick to drum up support (or give ideologues cover for offering it) -- though hopefully the right has at least learned that lesson in the last four years.
 

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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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