One of the reasons the Republican Party enjoys any popularity at all is because it is as comfortable as an old shoe: predictable, safe, conservative, and welcoming of those Americans who believe in old-fashioned values like overt patriotism, nuclear families, faith in God, and American exceptionalism. It is not a party of revolutionaries (the Tea Party is more classically defined as a counter-revolution), boat rockers, non-conformists, renegades, or heretics.
This usually makes choosing a presidential candidate a rather staid affair with polite but pointed scrums among the candidates before the first caucuses and primaries until — inevitably — the inevitable candidate who had been backed by the establishment from the start moves ahead in a stately fashion and coasts to victory. The fact that the winning establishment candidate has almost always run for the presidency previously — the exceptions happening three times in the last 48 years (Goldwater, Ford, Bush #43) — also leads to the conclusion that it is his “turn” and that other candidates must wait in line.
Matt Bai, one of America’s premiere political writers, took a shot at defining the GOP establishment in a recent New York Times Magazine article:
Today’s establishment is really a consortium of separate and overlapping establishments: a governing establishment of those who have served in administrations or in Congress; a political establishment of campaign consultants; a media establishment dominated by Fox News or the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and a policy establishment at organizations like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
If there is any one power center that connects all of these, though, it’s what you could call the money establishment — the group of senior Republicans, many of whom came to Washington as ideological warriors in the 1980s or early ’90s, who now make their living principally through the business of government. They wield quiet power as corporate lobbyists or regulatory consultants or prolific fund-raisers, or often as all of these at once.
The scenario that has run in past campaigns appears to be on track in 2012. Mitt Romney is getting a head start on the “inevitability” riff in this familiar composition. Despite lukewarm support from the Republican establishment, almost dutifully, those movers, shakers, spenders, bundlers, and thinkers who run the party are laying aside their doubts and have begun the drumbeat in the press about Mitt Romney’s “inevitability.”
They picked a lousy time for it. Two recent national polls show Herman Cain ahead of Romney, while several state polls also show the Georgia businessman beating out the establishment’s reluctant choice. But this doesn’t seem to make a dent in what is nothing short of a media blitz to crown the former Massachusetts governor before any challenger can truly make a game of it.
Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin points out that there are already 1.98 million Google search results for the term “Romney inevitable.” She also notes:
[T]he notion that any candidate’s win is “inevitable” months before votes are cast is silly. Romney is without a doubt the front-runner with considerable momentum and weak opposition. But lots can happen, and there are dangers from attaining not only front-runner but media-denominated “inevitable” status.
Not exactly “silly” if one looks at the recent history of the GOP nominating process, but certainly Herman Cain and Rick Perry would strenuously disagree. As Rubin writes, Romney could easily stumble as early as Iowa and will have a real fight on his hands in South Carolina. Those early contests could easily wipe the patina of “inevitability” from his campaign posters and see the candidate fighting for his political life in relatively unfriendly states like Florida (1/31/12) and Missouri (2/7/12). Another factor working against the “inevitable” candidate this time out is the elimination of “winner-take-all” primaries. With proportional delegate selection, any candidate who is trailing the front-runner can claim a significant portion of a state’s delegates even by losing.
But admittedly, it will take a lot to overturn the psychology of Romney’s momentum. First Trump, then Bachmann, then Perry — all have been ahead in one poll or another at one time or another in the last six months. And Romney plods on, never rising, never falling very far, maintaining an even keel through the roughest of waters. That, too, is a sign that Romney’s “inevitability” may be more mirage than mandate. The candidate has yet to top 30% in any national poll, despite what most political observers believe to be a weak GOP field. He has been criticized by some politicos for running what is essentially a general election campaign for the nomination, leaving his opponents to criticize each other while he stays above the fray.
And part of the “inevitability” tag on Romney has to do with the significant endorsements he’s received lately, most notably from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie, who took himself out of the race many months ago, nevertheless allowed establishment Republicans to get him to rethink his decision during the last fortnight. It is evidence that Romney may be the inevitable candidate, but that doesn’t mean the establishment has to like it. Romney and the blue-bloods may share the same tailor, belong to the same clubs, even get their hair cut by the same barber — but there has always been something distant in Romney’s demeanor that doesn’t sit comfortably with the GOP deciding class.
Matt Bai fingers the wariness with which many of the elites view Romney:
Romney, who’s supposed to be the establishment front-runner, incites no great passion on K Street and Capitol Hill, where he is regarded as a sort of well-designed political android. “Mitt Romney is a really smart, experienced guy, and he may well be exactly what you need as president right now,” Charlie Black told me. “He’s not a gregarious guy who’s easy to get to know.”
NRO’s Rich Lowry writes of Romney similarly:
As a politician, he impresses, but he doesn’t inspire or connect. There’s a human element that was missing in 2008 and still is. Maybe he won’t need it. But it helps account for the tenuous attachment of voters to him that still makes him vulnerable, even as the talk of his inevitability builds.
The establishment has a herd instinct they can fall back on, and the number of powerful money men who have been moving to assist Romney in the last few weeks has grown substantially. Former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, hedge fund manager Paul Singer, and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone are among the major Republican fundraisers who have recently come out in support of Romney, while other GOP whales appear to be rallying around the front-runner.
Romney must be extremely careful not to allow the inevitability tag to negatively affect how voters view his campaign. As Reagan found out in 1980 in Iowa, the electorate does not like coronations; they prefer contests. Reagan’s campaign took Iowa for granted and the candidate was made to pay for it by Iowa Republicans, who believed the Gipper slighted them by not showing up for the prime debate and making few campaign appearances. The payback came in the form of a win by George H.W. Bush, who was then ambushed by Reagan in New Hampshire.
The surest sign of Romney’s perceived inevitability would seem to come from the Obama campaign. The president’s chief political advisor, David Axelrod, voiced the same concerns of conservatives when blasting the candidate for his flip flops:
One of his problems has been that he hasn’t inspired a whole lot of confidence and enthusiasm among Republicans because across the political spectrum people have the same question: if you are willing to change positions on fundamental issues of principle, how can we know what you would do as president?
The Obama campaign has stepped up its attacks on Romney in recent days, pointing to their belief that he will be the GOP nominee. Is it wishful thinking? A Perry or Cain campaign in the fall would energize millions of conservatives, but would have trouble winning over independents — unless the economy was so bad that an “anybody but Obama” feeling would grip the electorate. Most commentators may have let it slip their mind that the Carter-Reagan race was neck and neck until the last few days of the campaign, when it became clear that the Iranian hostages would not be released. At that point, the contest swung on the economy and even independents who had shown little enthusiasm for Reagan broke for the Gipper by a 3-1 margin to seal the electoral landslide.
With Herman Cain more than competitive in the polls and Rick Perry flush with a $17 million haul in the last quarter of fundraising, Romney is no more “inevitable” in the real world than my pet cat Snowball. And I would hope that Snowy would have the good sense to keep the inevitability talk among the elites and the media where it belonged and not let it infect the GOP campaign for the nomination.