TAMPA—With an attention to detail that an art restorer working on a Rembrandt might envy, the Romney team has been working overtime to guarantee a smooth convention without a single discordant note—in 2016. Changes in Republican Party rules proposed by the Mitt-ites would, in theory, lessen the odds of rogue delegates and raucous dissenters disrupting the 2016 second-term coronation for a President Romney.
The small but vocal Ron Paul brigades joined by some militant conservatives threatened a Tuesday afternoon convention floor fight over the new rules, but as a beleaguered minority they never had the votes to get more than a face-saving compromise. Part of the Maine delegation walked out in protest. The history of party rules, dating back to the rise of presidential primaries in 1972, represents a crash course in the law of unintended consequences. So, in truth, there is no guarantee that the details of the Romney Rewrite will end up mattering to anyone other than election lawyers and political scientists.
Whatever its practical effects, this far-sighted effort to revamp the party rules reveals something important about a putative Romney presidency. All first-term presidents govern with a nervous eye on their re-election campaigns. (See Obama, Barack). But Romney appears as worried about his own party's 2016 primaries as he does about the Democrats.
Pat Buchanan has been an oft-discussed figure here in Tampa, since his fire-breathing "culture war" 1992 speech remains a never-again model of a convention speech gone awry. But the real damage to the re-election hopes of President George H.W. Bush came earlier when Buchanan challenged him in the New Hampshire primary and won an impressive 40 percent of the vote. That bygone Buchanan campaign rebuking Bush for going back on his read-my-lips pledge not to raise taxes is the precedent that haunts the Romney forces today.
The specter hanging over Romney is not a particular issue like taxes so much as the rise of Republican factions that demand ideological purity from their leaders. The resurgent right has been on the warpath beginning with the purging of establishment Republican senators like Utah's Bob Bennett (denied renomination in 2010) and Indiana's Richard Lugar (defeated in the 2012 primary). This take-no-prisoners political mood has continued through the recent upset Senate primary victories of tea party candidates like Ted Cruz in Texas and Todd Akin in Missouri.
This would be worrisome for any Republican president, not just one with Romney's zigzag ideological pedigree. No president of any party—certainly not Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt—has ever governed without muddled compromises and reluctantly broken promises. This backsliding is inevitable (see Guantanamo and Barack Obama) since presidents do not rule by decree.
Against this backdrop, imagine the potential mood in a Romney White House in 2013 or 2015. Every decision would be double-checked to make sure that it doesn't offend any restive faction in the Republican base. All spending proposals would have to pass muster with the tea party movement, all judicial appointments would be informally vetted by social conservatives and all nominees to the Federal Reserve would run the risk of the wrath of Ron Paul.
It can be a demoralizing way to govern. Maybe Vice President Paul Ryan would give Romney enough credibility with the budget hawks to ease the pressure on the administration's right flank. Maybe the Romney political operation would rein in restive Republicans. And maybe leprechauns would dance amid the clover on the White House lawn.
The Pat Buchanan figure in 2016 Republican presidential primaries might be Rand "Son of Ron" Paul on the libertarian side or perhaps (admittedly, a big perhaps) even Sarah Palin representing the tea party movement. There is, of course, no way to know the identity of who might personify thunder on the right in the 2016 primaries. But having survived the turbulence of this year's GOP race (recall the astounding record of underfunded challengers like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich), Romney knows all too well how uneasy lies the head that wears the Republican crown.
After the 1980 Jimmy-Carter-Ted-Kennedy grudge match, the Democrats have learned the hard way the self-destructive folly of challenging an incumbent president for renomination. Both Bill Clinton and Obama glided through their primaries without a ripple of dissent. But Will Rogers to the contrary, the Democrats these days are the organized political party while the Republicans are continually rambunctious.
The goal of this Tampa convention, more than anything, is to invite undecided voters to feel reassured at the prospect of Mitt Romney in the Oval Office next January. But, as the under-the-radar fight over Republican Party rules illustrates, a President Romney might well find himself a prisoner of his own party's quest for purity. In a sense, that may be the lasting legacy of Pat Buchanan and his quixotic 1992 primary campaign.