Mitt Romney Broke the GOP… In 2012
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney voted on Wednesday to convict President Trump on abuse of power. Immediately the political world rushed to either condemn him or sing his praises. Among those on the latter side of things were some Never Trumpers, still trying to purge the GOP of its Trumpian instincts by any means necessary, but they ignore just how it was Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign that broke the Republican Party and set the stage for Trump four years later.
Bill Kristol highlighted the differences between the “old” Republican Party and the new in a tweet after Romney made his announcement:
The first problem is that Ronald Reagan does not belong on this list. After having a hotly contested primary with President Gerald Ford in 1976 he had another one in 1980 with George H.W. Bush. It was Bush who came up with the phrase “voodoo economics” and Reagan picked him as VP in an attempt to unify the conservative wing of the party with the more moderate-establishment wing. After his own election, Bush sought to move away from Reaganism towards a “kinder, gentler” conservatism. Bob Dole, Bush 43, and John McCain aren’t exactly pillars of principled conservatism either.
Still, one of Kristol’s brand of Never Trump many criticisms of Trump is that he’s not a conservative. In 2016 one could point to Trump’s past positions on abortion, guns, or even his signature issue — immigration to prove this point. You could also point to his contemporary non-conservative positions on tariffs, foreign affairs, entitlement programs, and government spending generally. Given he had no history of conservatism, you could say he could not be trusted on judicial appointments or on any aspect of Constitutional governance.
Some of these concerns remain, some don’t, but the point is in 2016 they were very real. Couple those concerns with Trump’s moral character, many came to the conclusion that Trump was not deserving of their vote.
But, why did so many of the people who voted for Trump in the primaries do so, especially in such an anti-establishment fury?
In 2012, many of professional consulting and professional commentary classes supported Mitt Romney to the revulsion of the base. Conservatives believed that the millstone around President Obama’s neck was Obamacare and here they were being told that their best chance to defeat him was nominate the guy who came up with its godfather in Massachusetts’ Romneycare.
He was a guy who previously described himself as a progressive and was an outright liberal on abortion, the greatest moral issue of the day from the conservative perspective. The base was told to shut up and get in line because he was the electable one.
Mitt Romney eventually got the nominating after beating out a weak field and the base fell in line behind the common goal of beating Obama. But during the general election campaign, the Obama campaign was playing an entirely different game than the Romney campaign.
Team Obama ran a bitterly divisive campaign where it accused Romney of being a vicious capitalist who took away people’s health care who then got cancer.
It accused anyone who supported him of waging war on women. They ran ads of vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan throwing a grandmother out of her wheelchair and over a cliff and Joe Biden went to a predominately black audience and told them that Republicans were going to put them back in chains.
Romney’s response was to spend a good portion of the Republican Convention trying to convince America that he was not a monster, but in politics if you’re explaining, you’re losing, and to call Obama incompetent and bad at his job.
He ran as a technocrat, not a visionary. He did not run ideas, but his experience of being a Republican governor in a dark blue state, as the one who could “get things done” and reach across the aisle.
When he did talk ideas, he was uninspiring . His technocratic and robotic nature was signified in his 59 point plan to fix the economy which was eventually narrowed down to five and he never could put Romneycare behind him because despite his “severely conservative” credentials, he still viewed Romneycare as a positive achievement.
While Obama portrayed himself as the candidate for women, 50% of the population, and of the middle and working classes, Romney portrayed himself as the candidate for the small business owner or the aspiring entrepreneur, a much smaller percentage of the population.
Many conservatives considered Obama vulnerable in 2012 and yet, Romney lost by a wider margin than Trump would win by in 2016 and his failure broke the GOP.
Mitt Romney’s lack of fixed political principles made it much easier for Trump’s primary supporters to justify his lack of the same.
Trump’s appeal to the base was not that he was discovered some portion of the conservative base that had a secret love for trade protectionism, but that “he fights.” Romney and many of the professional Never Trumpers seemed, and still seem, to be more interested in fighting fellow Republicans than Democrats.
He stands up to he media, which in conservative circles is almost despised as much as actual Democrats, because at least Democrats are honest about what they believe. It may seem like ancient history but, in 2012 Newt Gingrich was once the top anti-Romney choice in the Republican primary simply because he took it to the media.
In short, he seems like someone who is up to the challenge of fighting the left, where the last two Republican nominees were not.
Maybe Trump isn’t the best standard bearer for social conservatives, but at least he doesn’t take their votes for granted or say the party needs to move away from, or at least de-emphasize, it’s pro-life positions like so many of the consultant class say.
This is part of the reason for the base’s love for Trump. They feel that Trump actually cares about them and their concerns. Whether that is true or not is not important here, because in politics perception is reality.
The perception before was that Republican politicians paid lip service to conservative priorities, but once in Washington they became “swamp creatures.”
They still see the swamp in action. Many of the same people who told us Romney was electable, told us Trump was not. They were wrong, but have never been held to account for that. Instead they pontificate on Twitter, get cushy commenting gigs at CNN or MSNBC, or lament Trump’s impure conservatism while hailing Romney, a political opportunist if ever there was one, as a man of great principle.
They were also some of the same people who told the base to get in line to vote for their candidate, but didn’t do the same when the base got their candidate.
They feel betrayed by Romney’s vote: Despite your lousy campaign and the fact we had serious reservations about your conservative credentials, we busted our butts to get you elected, defended you against the most vile personal attacks from the Obama campaign, and this is how you repay us?
This is why someone like David French, although he is frustratingly wrong about impeachment and by extension Mitt Romney, has a better chance of being heard in the post-Trump conservative movement than Kristol. French cares deeply about issues like abortion, gun rights, and religious liberty. He’s not someone to poo-poo cultural concerns that the base cares about far more than they do corporate tax cuts or trade policy. Nor is he going to declare himself a Democrat, whereas one gets the feeling Kristol’s top priorities include bringing back the old, tired, and discredited Republican establishment because that would be good for Bill Kristol. Bob Dole? Really?
Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party did not happen in a vacuum. If those concerned about the Trumpification of the GOP really want to rid the party of Trumpism, they need to look the mirror. One day Donald Trump will be no longer president and conservatives will have to talk about the future, not the past. Trumpism is not the future conservatism needs, but neither is Mitt Romney or Bill Kristol’s old Republican Party.