I understand there's no need to make a final decision now regarding who to nominate as the Republican candidate for president. I understand that political fortunes in a presidential race can change faster and more unpredictably than the weather in hurricane season. And believe me, I know where Rudy Giuliani was in the polls this time four years ago.
But this is not the same race it was four years ago; and Mitt Romney is not Rudy Giuliani. Nor is he John McCain, but we'll get to that a little later.
Let's talk for a little bit about the last presidential campaign. Nobody knew what kind of dynamics would decide the final election. Everyone thought the biggest issue/factor would be the Iraq War; no one thought it would be the economy. Barack Obama and John McCain became the eventual nominees mostly on the strength of their respective stances on the war. Obama had "always" opposed it, and therefore was able to hammer Hillary Clinton on her vote authorizing it. McCain, whose campaign was on life support after his immigration reform compromise with Senator Ted Kennedy fell through, was able to work his way back to the top because of his strong support for the Surge in Iraq (also based on the strength of his military background versus Romney's lack of background). The defining issue (or so everyone thought) was the war, and the parties nominated the people who best turned that issue to their advantage during the campaign. Most other factors were (mostly) incidental.
Now, that may sound like an oversimplification, but it is, nevertheless, the basis on which the nominees were chosen by the electorate. McCain, Giuliani, Romney, and Mike Huckabee all tried to portray themselves as strongest on the issue of the War on Terror and national security. But while Giuliani was a national security hero, he was also clearly the most liberal of all the candidates (and the worst campaigner by far). So, for voters for whom the most authentic voice was most important but who didn't want to be caught voting with their heads instead of their hearts, McCain's lifetime of heroism was just enough cover to play tiebreaker between him and the man who once danced onstage in fishnets. As for Romney and Huckabee, they simply couldn't compete with a genuine war hero.
Did I just oversimplify things even further? Maybe. Let's look at the overriding issue in this election season, though: the economy. Mitt Romney is the obvious choice. It's so obvious, they can see his nomination coming on the other side of the galaxy. But conservatives' hearts just aren't in it. I've never accepted the label of "establishment candidate" for Romney, mostly because the establishment seems almost desperate to nominate someone else; anyone else. They knew they couldn't nominate any of the lower-tiered candidates, such as Rick "I Lost In My Own State" Santorum or Ron "The Real Reason Al Qaeda Attacked Us Is ..." Paul. They've known for years that the next election would be about the economy, and that, if Romney ran, he would be the blindingly obvious choice.
But Romney just isn't ... "exciting" enough. So they've hoped, and they've searched, and they've waited, and they've pleaded. "Mike Huckabee, you were governor for a long time, and you're popular with evangelicals, so why don't you run? Donald Trump, you're an uber-billionaire, and everyone knows your name, so why don't you run? Chris Christie, look at all the great work you've done, and with a Democratic legislature no less, so why don't you run? Mitch Daniels? Haley Barbour? Paul Ryan?" Any fiscal conservative they could find who also had a hint of populist appeal, they tried to get in the race. But none of them have; and none of them will. Why not?
Perhaps it's because they fear the fate of Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty certainly looked good in theory. He did a good job as governor, he'd been floated as a running mate for John McCain, and he didn't have any of that pesky "Romney" baggage. However, when he entered the field, he soon wilted when faced with the daunting task of running against not only the president, but members of his own party as well. Perhaps he'd have done better if he'd only had to face Barack Obama, but he first needed to squeek past Michele Bachmann and, of course, Mitt Romney. He couldn't do either. He made a very wise decision when he stopped campaigning and chose not to wait to endorse the man he knew could best lead the country during this time.
Of course, there's a worse fate than that of Pawlenty's: the fate of Rick Perry. Perry is another candidate who looked great on paper. He's the longest-serving governor in history, his state of Texas continues to create jobs while other states languish, and his conservatism has never been questioned. Well ... had never been questioned. You see, when you're the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, you soon find that you're not nearly as conservative as you thought you were. The only way to avoid being made to look like a fool is to never try to pretend that you were conservative in the first place.
That's a lesson Romney learned in the last election, and it's a lesson that Donald "I Sued To Have A Woman Thrown Out Of Her House So I Could Build A Limo Parking Garage" Trump would quickly learn in this one, were he to run. Chris "Plain Talking" Christie wouldn't need to learn it, of course, but his legions of fans certainly would, as would fans of Mitch Daniels, John Thune, Marco Rubio, and even Allen West. I've been on conservative forums all across the internet, and every one of these men have been called a RINO on at least one of them. How "conservative" you are considered depends entirely on how close you are to receiving the nomination; in fact, it is inversely proportional, I've observed.
And if they can't question your conservatism, then they question your credentials. Huckabee received more than his share of questions about raising taxes in Arkansas, and just how big a role Perry has played in job creation in Texas is certainly a legitimate issue. Some call it vetting, but the tone of the vast majority of these "questions" is far too ... personal, let's say; certainly too personal for people who've never met any of these candidates and only know what they find online (which may or may not even be accurate). There are three types of people who do this: the true believers (who will never be satisfied, because there is no perfect conservative with a perfect record of economic leadership), the devoted followers (who will never be satisfied until and unless their own prefered candidate is nominated), and the anyone-but-Romneyites (who will never be satisfied, because there is no one out there who is close enough to perfect to beat Romney, and even if there were, it's everlastingly too late for them to enter the race).
You see, just like with the Iraq War, there is more than one candidate who can address the issue of the economy. Tim Pawlenty probably could have done it, but he dropped out when it became clear that he couldn't win the nomination, and he's now thrown his support behind the man who can (sort of like Romney himself did in 2008). Now, there's Rick Perry (who, by the way, endorsed Giuliani in '08). Perry and Romney are frontrunners, not (just) because one of them is Romney and because the other is the Anti-Romney, but because they're both considered credible enough to campaign on the economy against the president's economic policies, philosophies, and (lack of) results. So, as in the case of McCain and Giuliani on the War on Terror, there must be a tiebreaker; and, as in that case, it will come down to who's the better campaigner and who's the more conservative candidate.
I don't think anyone questions that Romney's the better campaigner. Except for Ron Paul, Romney's the only one who's run a national campaign, and his learning curve is much sharper than other candidates. It would seem that Perry would be the more conservative candidate, but as the last three debates have demonstrated, things aren't so cut-and-dried. Perry signed a law granting in-state tuition to students who were in Texas illegally, and he has continued to champion it. Romney vetoed a similar law that came to him as Governor of Massachusetts. On this and other issues, Romney is actually the more conservative candidate. And, don't forget, Romney's spent the last two years helping conservative candidates get elected to positions in nearly all levels and branches of government across the country, including Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey. The only high-profile election in which Perry involved himself that anyone seems to remember (besides his own) was when he campaigned for Al Gore.
So, the conservative angle is, at best, a tie with advantage Perry, and the campaign angle is absolutely Romney's. That angle will be far more important in the general election for Republicans because, while the whole country is worried about the economy, conservatives are worried about removing Barack Obama from the White House. But, they still don't like Romney. They want another tiebreaker, someone who's "conservative" enough so they don't have to worry about nominating "another McCain".
To which I say: grow up.
Mitt Romney is not John McCain. I am giving you a "No Fail" guarantee if Romney is nominated to face Barack Obama in the general election. The last election wasn't about the Iraq War, like everyone thought it would be; it was about the economy. Neither Obama nor McCain was the right candidate for that debate, so it fell to the man who could campaign better. If we had known that the economy would be the center of the election, then Romney would have campaigned on it and won, because not even Mike Huckabee could touch him on that front (and McCain certainly couldn't have). And then, Romney would have won the general, because Obama would have had nothing with which to challenge Romney.
Well, this time around, we do know it'll be the economy, so let's pick the man who can do the best job; the man we should have picked the last time. He's not conservative enough? Who is? Not Rick Perry, apparently. He's not exciting enough? Get over it! This isn't about who's going to "pick a fight" or who's going to usher in a new era of conservatism; this is about 9% unemployment. This is about millions of Americans out of work and millions more just scraping by. This is about thousands of devastating taxes and regulations, and competing in an increasingly global economy. It's about jobs, and inflation, and trillion-dollar deficits, and bloated spending programs, and a broken system in our nation's capital. It's the economy, stupids! Now, get out there and nominate someone who can fix it!
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