Conservatives Have No Faith in the GOP Nominee—for Good Reason

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Mitt Romney cannot trust his instincts in this campaign. Too many of them are unacceptable to conservatives, independents, or both.

mitt romney handshake.jpg
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In her latest Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan advises Mitt Romney that conservatives would respect him more if he responded to attack ads more forcefully and trusted his instincts.

As she puts it: 

I suspect some conservative used the Romney campaign's listless response as a stand-in for what they'd really like to say to Mr. Romney himself, which is, "Wake up, get mad, be human, we're fighting for our country here!"

Romney is not over-managed by others--he isn't surrounded by what George H.W. Bush called "gurus"--but he over-manages himself. He second guesses, doubts his own instincts. Up to a certain point that's good: Self-possession is a necessary quality in a political leader. But people don't choose a leader based solely on his ability to moderate himself. They're more interested in his confidence in his own judgment, or an ease that signals the candidate has an earned respect for his own instincts.

She is correct that conservatives love it when Republican politicians get mad and combative. But the idea that the right is eager for Romney to confidently follow his instincts is the opposite of reality.

The right doesn't trust Mitt Romney's instincts on any subject save business-friendliness and taxes.

Neoconservatives worry that Romney's instincts are more George H.W. Bush than John Bolton. Social conservatives worry that Romney's instinct is to dispassionately take the politically advantageous stance on abortion. Small government conservatives know his instinct was to enact Romneycare. Libertarian-leaning conservatives worry that his instinct is to be a corporatist. Populists worry that he's an Ivy League educated financier at heart. Aside from Romney's affection for Mormonism and big business, both of which seem genuine, is there any position the man wouldn't abandon or embrace if it would win him the White House? The regularity with which he's changed positions and his rhetorical zealousness both before and after his "conversions" give the impression he's severely malleable. That's what a lot of Republicans thought during the primaries.

Conservatives want so badly to beat Obama that they're forcing themselves to push hard for a man many of them neither like nor trust, all the while trying to box him into a right-wing agenda he'll never implement. Hence the insistence that he embrace Paul Ryan's budget and even put the Wisconsin Republican on the ticket. Hence the reminders from neoconservatives about what they will and won't tolerate. Hence the nervous outrage of talk radio types as the Romney campaign suggests that maybe his health care record from Massachusetts is an asset, not a liability.

They've got a bad feeling they're unwilling to fully reveal.

He was only able to win the GOP primary because he second-guessed every instinct he had that proved unacceptable to conservatives. Keeping the base happy while winning independents is going to prove difficult, because neither group is inclined to give the benefit of any doubt to the former Massachusetts governor, so his has little ability to fudge. And there's no reason to think that if Romney confidently said what he really believes he'd be better positioned.

The truth is that, if elected, Romney is extremely unlikely to sign the Ryan budget, or to completely repeal Obamacare, or to act in accordance with his tough rhetoric on immigration, or to significantly reduce the deficit. Conservatives have persuaded themselves out of desperation that a man they know to be unreliable won't have any choice but to advance their agenda in the White House, which makes about as much sense as assuming that a Ryan vice-presidency would influence Romney in a conservative direction rather than co-opting Ryan.

Says Erick Erickson, "Conservatives have put aside their distrust of Romney on this issue in the name of beating Barack Obama. They thought he and his campaign team had gotten the message and the hints. Consider the scab picked, the wound opened, and the distrust trickling out again." This from a man who is going to vote for Romney regardless, and who is needed by Romney far more now than on the hypothetical day after an election that puts him in the White House.

I'm sure Romney would be marginally better, by Erickson's way of thinking, than President Obama, but given the conservative movement's avowed (as opposed to revealed) preferences, it was in a no win situation in this election as soon as it decided that its nominee would be chosen among Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney. Partisans, especially of the professional variety, are nevertheless incapable of acknowledging when they're screwed.

Who'd rally the base if they did? There will be a lot of feigned confidence between now and election day.

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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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