Inside the Conservative Debate About Why Mitt Romney Lost

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A symposium in Commentary magazine illuminates the deep, ongoing disagreements about the last presidential election.mitt47percentpresser.banner.reuters.jpg

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The latest issue of Commentary, the neoconservative monthly edited by John Podhoretz, is dedicated to the question, "What is the future of conservatism?" Whoever assembled it deserves kudos. Taken together, the 53 responses are worthy of wide attention and engagement (alas, most are behind a paywall). Expect several items on the symposium in this space.

It's best to begin by looking back. 

One of the first things that struck me about the entries is how divided their authors are about what caused Mitt Romney to lose the 2012 election. It's by no means the predominant topic of the symposium, but everyone who touched on the subject affords a look the analytic lenses that conservatives will look through as they ponder what politicians to elevate and support going forward. Based on the entries, I expect a lot of contentious GOP primary fights in coming years.

As ever, Ronald Reagan loomed large in the symposium.


Take Linda Chavez, who argued that "Mitt Romney never articulated a clear vision for America. Voters could not be confident that he believed in much of anything beyond his own business skills, which he somehow thought were enough to convince voters to elect him." Noting that "the conservative movement has not been able to produce a leader who can inspire Americans to believe in fundamental conservative principles since Ronald Reagan," Chavez called for a renewed, Reaganesque focus on the "big ideas" and "fundamental principles."

Ramesh Ponnuru's contribution is in tension with Reagan nostalgia. He thinks the problems the U.S. faced in the 1970s are different from the ones it confronts today: The USSR is no more, health care is increasingly expensive, middle-class wage growth is stagnating, and tuition is rising fast even as educational attainment stalls. "Confronting this new world, Mitt Romney ran for president advocating ... across-the-board reductions in marginal income tax rates, tighter money, and a military buildup," Ponnuru wrote. "He fared worse than Reagan did because while political principles may be eternal, political programs are not-and the Reagan program no longer speaks to the needs or concerns of most Americans."

Michael Gerson agreed. Romney doggedly advocated for pro-growth, pro-business policies, arguing that he'd be a better economic steward than Obama, Gerson wrote. But that classic GOP agenda didn't resonate:

Over the last few decades, increased effort by the middle class has been rewarded by stagnant incomes and job insecurity. Economic mobility is increasingly a function of education, skills, family structure, and community health. Economic growth still matters, but as one factor among many. A rising tide is viewed differently by those who lack a boat and must learn to swim.

People in, say, the small-town Midwest, worried about insecure health benefits tied to insecure jobs, or seeking government help to master skills demanded by technological change, are generally not mooches or dependents. They are citizens (and voters) in the midst of massive, disorienting economic and social change. And greater economic freedom is not the answer to all their concerns.

Several respondents mentioned Romney's controversial "47 percent" remarks. For Victor Davis Hanson, they were a gaffe that helped to artificially inflate President Obama's margin of victory. Michael Mukasey argued the GOP must avoid such rhetoric, lamenting that absent the "technical, personal, and rhetorical failures of the Romney campaign we might not be talking about doctrine."

Mark Steyn says the next GOP nominee has to at least try to win over all Americans, "even the deadbeats."

R.R. Reno was even more harsh. "To make abstract pronouncements excoriating the '47 percent' reflects a counterrevolutionary mentality, one that rejects the historical experience of solidarity over the last century," he wrote. "Nothing could be further from a genuine conservatism."

Yet Heather Mac Donald defended Romney on that point:

For all his attempts at moderating his message during the general-election campaign, Mitt Romney still got bashed -- even by some conservatives, no less! -- for being too hard-hearted. But Romney's much-excoriated comments about who receives and who pays for government "gifts" contained more truth than distortion. The country is about to pass the point where over 50 percent of households receives transfer benefits from the government, writes the American Enterprise Institute's Nicholas Eberstadt. Where is majority support for smaller government going to come from?

For Jay P. Lefkowitz, Mitt Romney suffered for the same reasons as Al Gore and John Kerry -- he was caricatured on one hand as an out-of-touch rich white guy, and on the other as a flip-flopper. His takeaway: Conservatives and Republicans must field "better" candidates. Wilfred McClay thinks that "there is reason to believe that the failure of the Romney campaign's Project Orca and other aspects of an inadequate GOP ground game may have had more to do with his narrow defeat than did any of the other matters now under consideration."

And Paul Rahe isn't even that upset that Romney lost. "There is no use crying over spilt milk. The milk was likely to be sour in any case," he wrote. "The proud father of RomneyCare is not now and never has been a conservative -- much less, as he termed himself, 'a severe conservative.' He is by training, instinct, and experience a technocrat, a managerial progressive on the model of Herbert Hoover, a 'New-Deal Republican' on the model of Thomas E. Dewey; and he was never serious about repealing ObamaCare." 

The debate about Mitt Romney is usually portrayed as pitting those who believed him to be "too conservative" against those who found him not conservative enough. That is one rift, but as you've seen, there are so many others. These disagreements are almost always present in national parties. But it seems to me that they're particularly hard for the GOP to resolve after this particular defeat, partly because Romney was so obvious and shameless about changing his positions -- any faction can plausibly disclaim him -- and partly because conservatives themselves flip-flopped: So many movement types who formally endorsed Romney in the 2008 GOP primaries were denouncing him and casting madly about for anyone else just four years later, even though his positions and rhetoric only got more "severely" conservative in the interim.

I'd say that it's hard to imagine anyone coming along and unifying the right. Then again, liberals and progressives were divided about why John Kerry lost the 2004 election and took the White House four years later.

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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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