The Great Right Hope

By Boyer, Peter J. | Newsweek, February 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Great Right Hope


Boyer, Peter J., Newsweek


Byline: Peter J. Boyer

The conservatives who hate Mitt Romney the most have it wrong. Why they'd love him in the White House.

It must seem to Mitt Romney, freshly infused with a new dose of momentum, that inevitability ain't what it used to be. The forces within his party that have served up one challenger after another, including Newt Gingrich twice, will persist long after Romney has vanquished the last of them. The Massachusetts Moderate, as Gingrich calls him (when he's feeling friendly), is in for a long struggle that has less to do with ideology than with class, less with what he says or does than with who he is: a rich guy who'll always seem to be masquerading in costume when he mingles with the folks in his campaign jeans.

If he needs a reminder of how things have changed within the Republican Party, Romney only need think back to the final day of his last campaign, in February 2008, when he conceded defeat to John McCain. Standing before what amounted to the Republican base in assembly--the annual Conservative Political Action Conference--Romney heard himself introduced as "the conservative's conservative" and proceeded to deliver the speech of his career. He asserted the virtues of American culture, decried the corrosive effects of liberalism, and dared to liken his own campaign to Ronald Reagan's 1976 insurgency--and the audience cheered its affirmation.

Prominent conservative leaders welcomed Romney into the movement. Rush Limbaugh voiced his support on the air, as did Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham (who also gave Romney that effusive intro at CPAC). "I was seen as the conservative candidate," Romney recently recalled in a conversation with Newsweek. With the right's applause still ringing in his ears, Romney began the long march toward 2012, having reason to believe that he'd overcome the greatest impediment to his presidential ambitions.

The conservative love, of course, proved cruelly illusory, as became evident from the day Romney officially announced his 2012 candidacy last June. His New Hampshire kickoff event had the carefully staged feel of presumed inevitability, but the excitement that day emanated from Sarah Palin's tour-bus drive-by elsewhere in the state. Romney's small footprint on the Republican landscape left a lot of open space, and the scramble to fill it has been the story of the 2012 campaign. Romney's inability to claim more of that space himself, even as his rivals began to fall off, posed a real peril to his candidacy that became clear only with -Gingrich's second surge, when pollsters examining Romney's standing with voters began using terms like "collapse."

Romney says he understands the conservative reluctance about him, and he names its source: Romneycare. "I think what happened between four years ago and today is that President Obama took his 2,700-page Obamacare bill and tried to stretch the sheep's clothing of the Massachusetts health-care plan around it," he says. "I think that to some Republicans that meant that I was somehow responsible for what he did. And that allowed some people to characterize me as being moderate, because it sounded like the president and I were on the same page."

Romney is only partly right. He entered this Republican primary season with Romneycare hanging around his neck, as Rick Santorum put it, like "a scarlet letter." But Romney's greater problem with the grassroots is his disconnect from a GOP reshaped by the Tea Party, with its visceral disdain of the political establishment. Romney is, and ever shall be, the candidate of the establishment, and, though he is capable of sharp debate (as Gingrich has lately learned), rhetorical alley fighting is not his metier.

"His problem is the same as the problem that George Herbert Walker Bush had," says John Sununu, a Romney supporter who served as the elder Bush's White House chief of staff. "They come from a genteel segment of society that doesn't instinctively have the capacity of putting sharp edges on the words they use.

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