Don't Forget: Hardcore Conservatives Sold the GOP on Mitt Romney

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If he loses, they'll complain he was a bad candidate foisted on them by moderates. But look at their assurances from four years ago.

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Should Mitt Romney lose the presidential election, movement conservatives are widely expected to blame RINOs, Beltway conservatives, and moderates who insisted that the former Massachusetts governor was the best candidate, supposedly foisting him on reluctant conservatives.

Don't believe that spin.

Yes, center-right pundits ridiculed Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain during the Republican primary, correctly arguing that they weren't credible presidential candidates (all three would be trailing Obama by a wide margin.) But the GOP primary electorate didn't cast their ballots based on a David Frum soundbite or an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times.

Romney's victory in the nomination battle is partly his own doing -- he committed no major gaffes, unlike his competitors, and performed capably in a seemingly endless series of debates. But he also benefited tremendously from name recognition, superior fundraising, and preexisting support within the GOP. How did he manage those advantages? They're a direct consequence of the widespread support movement conservatives gave him in 2008. And no one should let them forget it.

Years after the passage of Romneycare, during a far tougher election cycle for Republicans, and before Romney moved right in his rhetoric and policy positions for the present contest, these conservative opinion-makers insisted that he could beat Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama, that he was in fact a true conservative, and that he could be trusted to safeguard the GOP's soul.    

Don't take my word for it -- look back at their words.

Rush Limbaugh deemed him an embodiment of every important aspect of conservatism.

I think now, based on the way the campaign has shaken out, that there probably is a candidate on our side who does embody all three legs of the conservative stool, and that's Romney. The three stools or the three legs of the stool are national security/foreign policy, the social conservatives, and the fiscal conservatives. The social conservatives are the cultural people. The fiscal conservatives are the economic crowd: low taxes, smaller government.

National Review endorsed him in an unsigned editorial.

Our guiding principle has always been to select the most conservative viable candidate. In our judgment, that candidate is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Unlike some other candidates in the race, Romney is a full-spectrum conservative: a supporter of free-market economics and limited government, moral causes such as the right to life and the preservation of marriage, and a foreign policy based on the national interest," the magazine stated. "Romney is an intelligent, articulate, and accomplished former businessman and governor. At a time when voters yearn for competence and have soured on Washington because too often the Bush administration has not demonstrated it, Romney offers proven executive skill. He has demonstrated it in everything he has done in his professional life, and his tightly organized, disciplined campaign is no exception. He himself has shown impressive focus and energy. He knows that not every feature of the health-care plan he enacted in Massachusetts should be replicated nationally, but he can also speak with more authority than any of the other Republican candidates about this pressing issue. He would also have credibility on the economy, given his success as a businessman and a manager of the Olympics.

Said Laura Ingraham, announcing that she would vote Romney in the Washington, D.C., Republican primary, "No doubt about it, no hesitation. On the issues of national security and traditional marriage Romney stood up and he fought ..." In the same radio segment, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who some conservatives preferred in this year's primaries, said the following about Romney:

What I know I have seen over the past 9 or 10 months now is a guy that has gone through that pressure cooker, who has developed a passion, who understands why he is a conservative, and understands the issues -- how they weave together, and what America -- you know, conservatives are about traditional values and a traditional way of American life. And I think he understands that. It's not just in his head anymore. It's in his heart .... He's proved to me that this is someone, in his heart, he told me last night that he was going to fight until the end, that this is for the soul of the Republican Party, and it is .... He understands the national security piece .... I walked away [from a meeting with Romney] saying I can check that box. This guy really gets it. He understands it. He has a depth of knowledge about it. He knows what it means to be a commander in chief under these circumstances .... If you're a conservative there's only one place to go right now .... and that's Mitt Romney.

Sean Hannity announced on his show that he would vote Romney rather than backing Rudy Giuliani. Glenn Beck supported him too. Ditto Bill Bennett and Dennis Prager. Even Mark Levin, the least enthusiastic of Romney's supporters, said, "The only one left standing, the only one, after all these weeks of voting, who can honestly be said to share most, most of our conservative principles is Romney," also remarking that "When you look at Romney --  that's one of the things that struck me sitting next to him, a gentleman, a class act. Didn't attack in any personal way. I mean we're talking about president of the United States potentially here, ladies and gentlemen."

Basically, a lot of the conservative base was disappointed when Romney lost -- and when John McCain lost the general election, they complained that the RINOs foisted an excessively moderate nominee on them. I distinctly remember acquaintances of mine complaining that if they just would've listened to Rush Limbaugh and nominated Romney the Republicans would've won. Some of those people were Romney donors three years later.

For the talk-radio types to insist now, as Romney falls behind in the polls, that the moderates have saddled them with a candidate who can't win is absurd. Their endorsements of four years ago don't bind them to Romney forever. They were perfectly within their rights to back another candidate this cycle. But having insisted that Romney could beat Obama in 2008, they can't very well claim that he couldn't do so this year, when Obama and the Democrats are much more vulnerable. Nor can they claim that Romney isn't sufficiently conservative to be a good nominee, having already praised him effusively as a standard bearer who embodies all the most important parts of conservatism, really and truly feeling them in his heart. Of course, it's possible that they were just saying things they didn't believe back then on behalf of the Romney campaign.

Whether considered judgment or dishonest hackery explained their 2007 praise for Romney, it is that very praise that won him considerable support in the rank-and-file and next-in-line status in the GOP. It isn't surprising that some of these figures are trying to assign blame elsewhere as the possibility of a Romney loss sends waves of fear through the right, but they're as responsible for putting Romney in this position as anyone, and certainly more responsible than the center-right pundits on whom they try to blame everything that goes wrong in the Republican Party.

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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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