The Right's Dead-Enders

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Kurtz

Will the hard-core anti-Romney pundits come around?

Erick Erickson was out of patience, tired of reading about Mitt Romney as a paragon of conservative virtue, tired of hearing the callers to his Atlanta radio show praise Romney's record.

The founder of the red-meat blog sat down last fall in his Macon home, beside a towering painting of Abraham Lincoln, and banged out an epic rant. Romney was "unprincipled," he wrote, and yet certain to win the Republican presidential nomination--an outcome that would cause "the destruction of the conservative movement as we know it."

Time has not softened Erickson's stance. The onetime Presbyterian church deacon turned CNN commentator now tells Newsweek: "There are a whole lot of conservatives who think Romney is not really a whole lot better than Obama."

Erickson and other keepers of the conservative flame have been trying for more than a year to muscle Mitt aside in favor of someone--anyone!--who didn't reek of moderation. Now, despite the empty chatter about a brokered convention, there is no Plan B left, no savior waiting in the wings. It is a moment of truth for the dead-enders, who have to decide whether to relent and rally around Romney or hang back, even if it means helping Barack Obama win a second term.

The unrelenting anti-Romney hostility has ruptured the conservative media movement--a movement that has come to define, and in some ways dominate, the modern Republican Party. This election is sorely testing its solidarity as the tension between purity and pragmatism bursts into public view.

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Washington Post blogger, says too many of her comrades "reflexively choose the guy who's furthest to the right and everyone else is the anti-Christ ... Many of these people would rather lose than have someone who's going to move the Republican Party closer to the center. They thrive on being out in the wilderness."

The wilderness can indeed be an appealing place, since it is more popular to be on offense (against socialists and scoundrels) than to defend an uninspiring standard-bearer. But now many of the right's leading voices are struggling with this question: are they about promoting a political party or perpetuating their own success?

Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative bible National Review, doesn't hold back when it comes to Romney: "Anything he does, there's an automatic assumption that it's the synthetic product of calculation. There's something lacking at the core." As the alternatives have faded, Lowry is trying to make peace with the idea of Romney as nominee: "If I have to manufacture enthusiasm, I'll happily do so." Yet in the next breath, he frames the choice as "a flawed candidate running against a very flawed president."

Another conspicuous holdout is Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. "His campaign can be off-putting, the presumption that if you're not with him, there's something wrong with you," Kristol says. "You can't have it both ways, saying, 'I haven't been part of Washington' and then, 'Gee, I wonder why all those Washington guys don't have more of an attachment to me.'?"

For his part, Romney hasn't courted the Beltway loudmouths and avoids the Sunday talk circuit. "This isn't a green-room campaign," says Stuart Stevens, Romney's top strategist. "There's a strength to being outside of Washington and not part of that culture. It just helps you focus on running your own campaign and not trying to please everyone."

The conservative commentariat has not always held such sway. Two decades ago, those on the right felt shut out of a media culture they viewed as incorrigibly liberal. Rush Limbaugh was just starting to build a national radio show, and Fox News was a gleam in Rupert Murdoch's eye. …