Sunday, December 18, 2011

Grow Up: Endorsement Edition

Mitt Romney's impressive list of endorsements has been growing steadily since before he even announced he was running for president.  Notable Romney backers include Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and well-known conservative firebrand Ann Coulter.  The list also includes approximately ten times as many current and former governors, senators, Congressmen, and state legislators as all the other candidates combined.  The sheer number of endorsements he's received is especially telling when you consider that many of his Congressional endorsements come from former colleagues of his co-frontrunner, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

These endorsements, however, have all been shrugged off or explained away by people who can rationalize "the establishment" coalescing around "the establishment candidate".  Not that I have ever accepted the label of "establishment candidate" applying to Romney (or not applying to Gingrich), but it's easy to dismiss endorsements from people whose names you've likely never heard, or publications (like mine) that you've probably never read more than a few times.  In the case of endorsements from the likes of Christie, Pawlenty, and Coulter, there are myriad rationalizations to be made.  "Christie's not really as conservative as we first thought."  "Pawlenty just wants to be his vice president."  "Ann's obviously lost her mind."  And, of course, the label RINO (Republican In Name Only) gets thrown around quite liberally (pun intended?).

However, the trend of conservative politicians, pundits, publications, and polls towards the Romney camp just keeps climbing.  It saw four major endorsements just this last week.  The first came from Christine O'Donnell, former Senate candidate from Delaware.  O'Donnell's run for the Senate epitomized the "Tea Party vs. Establishment" fight in 2010 in a way that almost no other election story that year did.  She defeated a candidate handpicked by the Republican Party to run and who was seen as an easy path not only to victory but to returning control of the Senate to Republicans.  Primary voters in Delaware, however, couldn't care less about the national agenda and chose the candidate they wanted.  Conservatives all across the country rallied to O'Donnell's candidacy, flooding her campaign coffers with money and bringing her longshot bid to the attention of the whole nation.

So you can imagine, when she endorsed Mitt Romney this last week, it caused no small amount of shock on the part of Tea Partiers everywhere.  Publications and pundits have been downplaying the importance of the endorsement, with some going so far as to express surprise that the Romney campaign would enthusiastically embrace and promote it.  However, that strikes me as a bit disingenuous.  O'Donnell had quite a brand about her, after all.  No matter what level of respect she commanded from either her supporters or detractors, she was always seen as a "true conservative hero".  For her to now endorse a man who is viewed by many as the very type of politician against whom she ran in 2010 is seen by some as a betrayal of that brand.  However, as she points out in her endorsement, Romney was one of the first to call and congratulate her on winning the nomination in Delaware, and he immediately donated to her campaign.  They are, perhaps, a bit of an odd couple, but they truly believe in each other.  While O'Donnell may have lost some supporters after this, it only strengthens my own already high opinion of her.

Next came the Washington Examiner, seen by many as the definitive conservative alternative to the Washington Post (sorry, Washington Times), featuring writers such as Michael Barone, Philip Klein and Byron York.  It is owned by the same parent company that owns the Weekly Standard, one of the more reliably conservative magazines in the U.S.  Declaring Romney to be the GOP's best choice and "the only Republican who can beat Obama" predictably brought accusations from readers that they had "sold out to establishment elitists", declarations of disappointment, and vows to never read the Examiner again.  I've noted before that people should beware of assuming the most "vocal" responses are indicative of general sentiment, so it's easy for me to imagine the Examiner's endorsement inspired more thoughtful reconsideration of Romney among conservatives than it did anger amongst those who now consider the Examiner to be "dead" to them.  However, it's still disconcerting when a presumably long-term reader of a publication would abandon it over an endorsement like this.  We're all too willing to live in echo chambers, apparently.

The third endorsement of note came from Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina.  Conservatives rallied around her as the first woman governor of SC, the current youngest governor in America, and the second Indian-American to become a governor.  Symbolically, at least, she's one of the most inspiring figures in the Republican Party, even if her single year in office has already hit some bumps in the road (what governor hasn't in his or her first year?).  She's been staunchly and consistently pro-life and anti-tax throughout her time as a legislator in SC and as governor, and, until she endorsed Mitt Romney for president this week, was seen as firmly in the Tea Party.  "Why, Nikki?" one outraged former supporter demanded. "Why would you compromise your principles?"  I doubt this person ever honestly considered that Romney actually shares Haley's principles; if she had, then maybe she'd realize it doesn't take a compromise.

Attempts to marginalize Gov. Haley's endorsement have been almost as ridiculous as the attempts to smear her during her own primary battles were.  Does anyone doubt the governor of South Carolina can influence who does well in South Carolina's primary next month?  But the attempts to "explain" her endorsement have been even worse.  Some say she's returning the favor, since Romney endorsed her campaign last year.  Some speculate that she wants a spot on the ticket with him.  Both are direct attacks on Haley's integrity.  After all, not everyone whom Romney endorsed in 2010, 2009, or 2008 is behind him now, just like not everyone who is behind him now can expect a "job" in his White House.  The more people accuse conservatives like Gov. Haley of playing "quid pro quo" after having previously supported them, the more they make themselves look like fools.

Finally, the Des Moines Register Editorial Board issued its endorsement on Saturday after interviewing every candidate participating in the Iowa Caucuses.  This could be the most crucial endorsement Romney has received, given the influence the DMR has in Iowa.  Listed from the beginning of the article are three elements Romney himself looks for in a leader and the board notes are absent, in whole or in part, from the other possible nominees:  Sobriety, Wisdom, and Judgment.  It noted the evolution of Romney over the years from an independent to a moderate Republican to a conservative.  Some say it has been a "convenient" conversion for him, but DMR responds, "It should be possible for a politician to say, 'I was wrong, and I have changed my mind.'"

Another excellent, well-reasoned, considerate endorsement, right on the heels of several other endorsements from publications and individuals that examine Romney on his merits and not on how he makes them "feel". And, predictably, on the heels of the endorsement came the wailing and nashing of teeth by those who "feel" the most strongly about the endorsement. To everyone who calls himself or herself a conservative, it's been great seeing your passion and desire for purity on display these last few months and even years; but it's time to use your heads.

Romney is the best candidate; not the best to win the nomination or to beat President Obama in the general, but the best to actually be president. If we had nominated him four years ago, then we can be certain of three things: One, unemployment would be below five percent right now (I list it first because it's the most important). Two, there would be no ObamaCare, either in its current form or in RomneyCare-gone-national form, because Mitt was on record even back in 2007 as saying he wouldn't impose a mandate at a national level (and he was saying this at a time when conservatives still thought the individual mandate was a good idea). And three, there would have been no government takeover of Detroit (read his "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" article in the New York Times from Dec. of '08).  An excellent record of job creation and balanced budgets throughout his professional adult life, no government takeover of healthcare, and no bailouts of private industry. What else could Tea Partiers ask for in their nominee? I've been to plenty of rallies in the years since they began holding them, and the answer is "nothing".

I'm not trying to short-circuit the primary process.  I believe everyone should vote their conscience, and I certainly don't believe in dictating other people's choices for them.  I do, however, believe in endorsements.  When the Washington Examiner, Nikki Haley, Christine O'Donnell, Chris Christie, the Des Moines Register, Tim Pawlenty, Ann Coulter, and literally hundreds of other serious lawmakers, executives, pundits and publications start lining up behind Romney, representing a fair cross-section of both long-term supporters and recent converts to his candidacy, it's time to stop declaring anyone who stands with Mitt a RINO or a sellout.  It's time to stop declaring that you've been "betrayed" and that your heroes are "going along to get along".  It's time to face the possibility that you yourself may have been wrong this entire time.  It's time, basically, to grow up.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

McCain Redux?

It's a myth that Senator John McCain lost in 2008 because conservatives didn't rally around him.  As Michael Medved pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, McCain actually gained more conservative votes than George W. Bush did against John Kerry, and even more than Ronald Reagan did against Jimmy Carter.  It was among independents that McCain lost.

Still, the myth perpetuates, mostly because people want to believe it.  Conservatives, like myself, want conservatism to "win".  We believe in the cause and in the principles, and when it comes to the presidency, we want the best, most conservative president we can get.  The difference between myself and most conservatives is I believe Mitt Romney is that man and others believe he's the McCain of myth; to wit, a candidate too moderate to draw enough conservative votes to win.  What they should worry about is nominating the McCain of reality, i.e. someone who will lose independent voters.  As in 2008, it seems they are about to do just that.

There are quite a few similarities between this election and the last one.  The volatility of the polls is one, of course.  Some of the same players are around, particularly Romney and Ron Paul.  And there's even a Republican lawmaker from the 80's and 90's with a history of compromising with Democrats, committing "heresy" on issues like immigration and education reform, having multiple wives, and narrowly avoiding being ejected from Congress for ethics violations.  In 2008, it was John McCain; now, it's former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich has far more in common with McCain than Romney does.  Neither of them has ever run a business or a state.  Their accomplishments have all been legislative, and usually the result of compromising with Democrats on important issues.  McCain compromised with Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform, with Sen. Joe Lieberman on cap-and-trade, and with Sen. Ted Kennedy on immigration reform.  Not only has Gingrich sparked controversy by being (seemingly?) willing to compromise on each of those issues himself, but he also reached several compromises with President Bill Clinton that, while they averted a prolonged government shutdown and ultimately led to a balanced budget, would seem to be inconsistent with some of the compromises he's urged lawmakers today to not make.  Granted, Romney made a few compromises while governor of Massachusetts, but that was with a veto-proof Democratic majority in the legislature.  He still managed to govern more conservatively than even the Republican governors who came before him in office.

Both McCain and Gingrich have seen their political careers suffer near-misses on ethics charges.  With McCain, it was the Keating Five scandal.  Though he was never charged, he was criticized by his colleagues for using "poor judgment" in the affair.  For Gingrich, it was 84 ethics scandals, most of which didn't receive a full hearing, but which did result in an official sanction and his own admittance that he had acted inappropriately.  His Speakership was in jeopardy afterwards, and especially following his failed attempt to impeach President Clinton.  Eventually, he resigned, the first Speaker to do so under such circumstances.

Both McCain and Gingrich were considered likely candidates for the nomination until their campaigns imploded over the summers before the primaries officially began.  Both implosions were due to their "heresies" of which both had to publicly repent before voters would start leaning towards them again.  For McCain, it was the above-mentioned immigration reform bill that ultimately failed.  After it did, he "flip-flopped" and said that he "now knew" that any reform must begin with securing the border.  For Gingrich, it was his oft-cited flip-flop on Congressman Paul Ryan's Medicare reform proposals that Gingrich once termed "rightwing social engineering", but now claims to support (kind of).  They both had skeleton campaigns after the summer and have both had to claw their ways back to the top, with debates and strong numbers in New Hampshire being central to the health of their candidacies.

The other thing both needed to survive is for the electorate to reject Romney's candidacy.  There was good reason to believe it would in '08, given that the idea was to elect someone who could win the Iraq War and Romney had no military record at all.  This year, though, the hope is that Romney will not be seen as conservative enough for Tea Party voters.  Bizarrely, given Gingrich's history, he's seen as less of a McCain than Romney is, despite the fact that Romney has never been sanctioned or even reprimanded by Congress, never been divorced, never been part of the establishment (despite all narratives to the contrary), and despite his exceedingly impressive executive experience.

One more thing Gingrich shares in common with McCain:  he'll have a much harder time wooing the center than Romney would.  In '08, the center could have gone either way; and it did.  Virtually en masse, they liked Barack Obama better than McCain.  They liked how he presented himself in the debates, his promises of "hope and change", how he handled the economic crisis, and, above all, how he promised to not be the second coming of George W. Bush.  This year, independents know better, and they're looking for someone who can undo the mess Obama has made.  Romney can do just that, and people know it.  They know no such thing about Gingrich, and what they do know of him, they don't seem to like very much.  Former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri wrote an excellent summation of why he and other center-right voters should elect Romney president.  You'll not find that kind of moderate support for Gingrich any more; just like you didn't see it for John McCain.