The press has offered basically two explanations for Mitt Romney’s failure to win over conservative voters. The first is ideological: conservatives know that Romney was once a moderate and they don’t consider his swing to the right sincere. The second is personal: whether because of his money, his faith or his hair, average Republican voters just don’t relate to him.
There’s clearly something to both of these arguments, but they don’t fully explain Romney’s struggles. After all, moderates-turned-conservatives have won GOP nominations in the past. George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, and John McCain in 2004, all won their party’s nomination despite histories of deep tension with the conservative movement. Steve Forbes, who had spent most of his life as a Rockefeller Republican, amassed so much conservative support in the run-up to the 2000 campaign that he briefly challenged George W. Bush from the right. Republicans also have rallied behind candidates from elite economic backgrounds (George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush) and candidates uncomfortable speaking about their faith (George H.W. Bush, Dole, McCain).
There’s a third explanation for Romney’s woes: He’s just not selling what conservative Republicans most want to buy. Going into this campaign, I suspect, Romney and his advisers figured it would be the perfect confluence of man and moment. Americans are obsessed with restoring jobs. Economic management, Romney likes to say, is his “wheelhouse.” As he put it last year, “That is what I know and what I do. I’ve had experience in turning things around that are going in the wrong direction.” From management consulting to the Olympics to the state of Massachusetts, Romney describes himself as a man who through a combination of smarts, toughness and pragmatism, nurses struggling enterprises back to health.
For the general election, it’s a pretty good shtick, which helps explain why Romney runs close to Obama in a head-to-head matchup. But while reviving the economy may be the issue that Americans care about most, it’s not the one that the Republican base cares about most. For conservative activists, the 2012 election isn’t fundamentally about jobs; it’s about freedom. The essential question is not how best to use government to restore economic growth; it is how best to keep government from destroying liberty.
When CBS News and The New York Times surveyed Tea Party supporters in 2010, for instance, they found that 45 percent described the movement’s goal as scaling back the federal government, compared with only 9 percent who described it as creating jobs. Asked what they were angriest about, 16 percent said the new health care law, 14 percent said a government that doesn’t represent the people, 11 percent said government spending, and only 8 percent said unemployment and the economy. (This may be partly because, according to CBS and the Times, Tea Partiers are wealthier than other Americans and thus more insulated from the economic downturn).
Obviously, conservatives see shrinking government and boosting the economy as interconnected: they’re convinced that if you do the former, the latter will follow. But when conservatives talk about limited government, it isn’t the prospect of enhanced economic growth that inspires them most; it’s the prospect of greater freedom. For a century now, American progressives have found the suggestion that boosting marginal tax rates or increasing anti-poverty programs threatens freedom to be downright baffling, but from Calvin Coolidge to Barry Goldwater to Glenn Beck, it’s been a core belief of the American right. And it has particular resonance in an era dominated by fears of national decline, and after three years of a president who, more than his two Democratic predecessors, really has increased the federal government’s reach.
From Michele Bachmann to Ron Paul to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum, the candidates who have stirred passion on the right this presidential season have been those who have defined the election not as a struggle between economic stagnation and economic prosperity but between government tyranny and individual freedom. That’s why Obamacare is such a potent issue for grassroots conservatives; it also explains the right’s obsession with the Obama administration’s “war on religious liberty.” It’s why Gingrich gets such huge applause when he promises to abolish the Obama administration’s “tsars.”
Listen to what Santorum said after he thumped Romney last week in Missouri. “People have asked me, you know, what is—what is the secret?” Santorum declared. “Why are you doing so well? Is it your jobs message? And, yes, we have a great jobs message…[but] the real message—the message that we’ve been taking across this country and here in Missouri—is a message of what’s at stake in this election…we have a president of the United States, as I mentioned, who’s someone who believes he knows better, that we need to accumulate more power in Washington, D.C., for the elite in our country, to be able to govern you because you are incapable of liberty, that you are incapable of freedom. That’s what this president believes. And I—and Americans—understand that there is a great, great deal at stake. If this president is reelected and if we don’t have a nominee that can make this case and not be compromised on the biggest issues of the day, but can make the case to the American public that this is about the founder’s freedom, this is about a country that believes in God-given rights, and a Constitution that is limited to protect those rights.”
This is a bad general election message. The Americans who decide presidential elections, especially in tough economic times, are pragmatic. They want candidates willing to do whatever it takes—no matter whose ideological ox is gored—to make the economic pain stop. It was FDR’s kitchen-sink pragmatism—along with his optimism and sense of urgency—that propelled him to victory over the doctrinaire Herbert Hoover. Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in 1992 with the campaign motto, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Ronald Reagan won in 1980 in part because—unlike Goldwater 16 years earlier—he convinced Americans that when it came to popular government spending programs, he would not let his conservative economic beliefs cause middle-class Americans any pain.
I suspect that Romney understands this. I’m sure he’d like to frame this campaign as a contest between a real-world, problem-solving businessman and a haughty academic who doesn’t understand what happens when ideas leave the blackboard. The problem is that at the very moment Romney wants to attack Obama for seeing the economy in abstract, ideological terms, his own party base is demanding that he do exactly the same thing.
Poor Mitt Romney. I actually think he’s interested in fixing the economy. But his party’s base is more interested in fighting the culture war by other means.