As Mitt Romney struggles, yet again, to nail down the Republican presidential nomination, a question keeps presenting itself: Is Romney’s team incompetent? The question was asked very directly by The Atlantic’s Molly Ball last week, and the bulk of GOP operatives she consulted were extremely critical of Romney’s brain trust, throwing around words like “clumsy,” “oblivious,” and the damning-with-faint-praise “technically proficient.” A lot of the criticism of Romney, in Ball’s account and elsewhere, involves his chronic inability to rally “movement conservative” leaders into his camp, which might have denied a whole series of opponents the oxygen they needed. But is Romney’s campaign really to blame for this situation? I would argue that it is not.
To understand why, consider just how much the climate in the GOP shifted between 2008 and 2012. It’s easy to forget that the “movement candidate” in 2008 was none other than Mitt Romney himself. He was endorsed by the editors of National Review; by Senator Jim DeMint; by Bill Bennett; by the late Paul Weyrich; and by Glenn Beck and Herman Cain. Romney was even endorsed by Rick Santorum, as has been frequently noted this year. Aside from outright endorsements, Romney also benefitted from the tactical support of Rush Limbaugh, the Club for Growth, and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page—particularly in his struggle to marginalize Mike Huckabee, the evangelical Christian candidate with an unorthodox economic message.
This wasn’t because Romney espoused more conservative positions back then, or because his heresies were less known. All the aspects of Romney’s background that have supposedly made it so difficult for hardcore conservatives to accept him in this cycle—the flip-flopping on cultural issues, the country-club persona, the moderate record in Massachusetts—were entirely apparent in 2008. No, the reason Romney fell out of favor with many movement conservatives is simply that they have become a lot more right-wing—and a lot more demanding—over the past four years.
For the most part, Romney didn’t do a bad job of keeping up with the rightward lurch in his party. He embraced the Cut, Cap, and Balance budget plan, a more thoroughgoing commitment to high-end tax cuts and entitlement reform, an aggressively saber-rattling foreign policy, and, of course, the wrathful language toward Democrats that now makes John McCain’s occasional gestures toward bipartisanship and civility seem very quaint. But some of the shifts in the conservative landscape over the last four years would have been impossible for Romney to adjust to no matter how clever or smart he and his strategists were. Who would have guessed that Romney’s white-shoe corporate background would become something of a liability? Just four years ago, Mike Huckabee drew the concerted wrath of conservatives for suggesting that the laissez-faire economic policies of the Bush administration were producing less than ideal results from the perspective of middle-class Americans. Now, with conservatives suddenly suspicious of Wall Street, it’s Romney who is suffering for his image as a predatory capitalist, most notably at the hands of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina. What could he have possibly done about that, particularly since his business background was the heart of the otherwise empty claim that he was the candidate best equipped to heal a stricken economy?
The periodic threat to Romney’s nomination posed by Gingrich probably best exemplifies the radically different 2012 environment. Many of Mitt’s critics look at the field he has faced and think his struggles to overcome it are a sign of his weakness. As Jonathan Martin brutally put it in Politico last week:
[T]he establishment favorite needs to explain why, two-and-a-half months into the primary season, he can’t seem to put away underfunded rivals who are viewed by many in the party as general election disasters.
But turn that around: What does it say about the climate of opinion in the GOP this year that has-beens like Gingrich and Santorum, nobodies like Cain, and extremist figures like Bachmann and Paul have been able to mount serious challenges for the nomination? The one non-Romney candidate who would not have been laughed off the stage in 2008, Tim Pawlenty, was the first to be discarded. And 2000’s movement-conservative candidate, George W. Bush, is now routinely denounced as a betrayer of conservative principles, whose primary domestic policy initiatives have become anathema. The fact that Romney has managed to inch toward the nomination at a time when the dominant mood in the GOP is so partial to right-wing populism and extremism is arguably quite an achievement.
Sure, Team Mitt has made strategic mistakes, most notably the negligence that enabled Rick Santorum to re-emerge as a serious candidate after Romney’s decisive wins in Florida and Nevada. But there really isn’t much of a blueprint for a candidate in Romney’s position—unless you go all the way back to 1964, when a similar radicalization of the GOP occurred and conventional Republicans were similarly thrown off-balance. And if Mitt Romney wins the nomination in a year when his party seems to long for another Barry Goldwater, the last thing his campaign should be accused of is incompetence.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.