And it ain’t over yet. A week, said the British politician Harold Wilson, is a long time in politics. It was just last week, on December 22, that Conrad Black, though describing Newt Gingrich as “a completely unfeasible president,” could also note that he is “now the leading contender for the Republican nomination.” Newt thought so, too. Less than a month ago, he blithely assured ABC’s Jake Tapper that “I’m going to be the nominee.” And just why did he think so? “It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”
Ignore the tangled negatives: it’s clear what he meant: “I’m riding high and still rising in the polls; therefore it is very likely that I will be the nominee.”
Bad argument, Newt. You spoke 11 months before the election. Remember what Harold Wilson said: a week is a long time in politics. According to the Public Policy Polling folks, his balloon has deflated from 27% to 22% to 14% to 13% over the course of four successive Iowa polls.
As I write, Mitt Romney, the Establishment candidate, seems to be consolidating the presumption that has followed him for months: that when the dust settles, he, the well-coiffed successful businessman, is the most serious, i.e., the most plausible, i.e., the candidate that best fulfills the Buckley (as in William F.) Rule: that political prudence dictates that we (i.e., “we” conservatives) support the most conservative candidate who can win. Never mind that Bill Buckley himself did not consistently follow the Buckley Rule — he was, for example, an ardent supporter of Barry Goldwater. No matter: it is a sound rule. When, that is, it can be plausibly applied, which is much less frequently than the conventional wisdom would have you think.
As I’ve said before in this space, if it turns out that Mitt Romney is the nominee, then I will support him. But at this juncture, I believe, it is by no means clear that he will be the nominee. I say this with some hesitation, since most of the smart money on my side of the aisle is solidifying around Mitt. The shooting star (at least, I think it was a shooting star) that was Newt Gingrich seems to have startled many conservative bystanders into eloquence: Newt, No! Romney, Yes!
I do not, however, discern a great deal of enthusiasm in their endorsement. Some of the holdouts explain why. Over at Townhall.com, frequent PJM contributor John Hawkins, for example, summarizes some of Romney’s signal vulnerabilities in a post titled “7 Reasons Why Mitt Romney’s Electability Is A Myth.” When I tell you that Bain Capital, the company that made Romney rich, received a $10 million federal bailout, of which he and some of his partners pocketed $4 million, while laying off hundreds, you’ll understand that the idea that he is the candidate, conservative or not, who can win is open to doubt.
As I say, most of the smart conservatives, especially those who are politically engaged, favor Romney (just as the they are alternately terrified and contemptuous of Gingrich). But the gratification gap is palpable. “People,” Hawkins observes, “just don’t like Mitt. The entire GOP primary process so far has consisted of Republican voters desperately trying to find an alternative to Mitt Romney.”It’s a curious situation. Thus far, the Republican primary has been a sitcom titled “The Search for the Not-Mitt.” The Romney forces assume it will end as a version of Waiting for Godot. There is, they believe, no Non-Mitt, so whatever disenchantments Romney inspires, he’s the man:
ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
That’s one scenario. Conrad Black, in the column cited above, outlines another. “The nation,” Black writes, “is not turning its lonely eyes toward, Willard M. Romney, widely perceived as a plastic policy weather vane and incorrect health-care champion who was mean to the family dog”:
But the process that has produced a nominee easily for both parties at every convention since 1952 now looks likely not to work this year; there is no bandwagon, and there could be the first real draft since the Democrats chose Adlai Stevenson in 1952, and, on the Republican side, since Wendell Willkie in 1940.
The genius of the American system produces a serious leader when the country has to have one, and substitutes an improvised selection process when the normal procedures don’t work. . . . Out of this astonishing showdown of able non-presidents, either a mid-primary inspiration or a convention-eve groundswell will identify the right candidate. The office is seeking the man, or woman, but so far without success; so the search will continue.
I suspect — at least, I hope — that Conrad is right. Shortly after the 2010 election, I was invited to tag along as speaker on a National Review cruise. It was a moment of what Nanki-Poo called “modified rapture”: Republican victories were great, but not as great as they might have been. And what of the 2012 election? I thought that the pollster Scott Rasmussen, another speaker on that voyage, diagnosed the situation exactly. What, he asked, did the American people want the government to do? Only 21 percent of those polled, he reported, said that they believed that the government operated with the consent of the governed. Americans, the evidence says, do not want to be governed by Democrats. But they do not want to be governed by Republicans, either. They want a government that, by adhering to the principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility, will continue that great experiment that Washington, Madison, and Hamilton inaugurated in the late 18th century: a government that managed the great trick of being an exercise in self-government.
Mr. Rasmussen also made a prediction, one that bears on the current circus that is the Republican primary contest. The prediction was this: that the Republican candidate in 2012 would not be Mitt Romney. It would not be Tim Pawlenty (this was November 2010, remember) or Newt Gingrich. Nor would it be Sarah Palin. But the candidate would, said Scott Rasmussen , be “a friend of Sarah’s,” i.e., someone who spoke up for the forgotten principles of the Founders, who believed, with Ronald Reagan, that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Right now, today, Mitt Romney looks like a shoo-in. But I think there is a lot in what Messrs. Black and Rasmussen say. A week, after all, is a long time in politics.