The conventional wisdom now treats Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, as the strong favorite for the Republican nomination. On Intrade.com, he is given a 61 percent chance of winning the nomination -- more than three times his closest rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Romney’s strength may seem puzzling. He is running as the establishment candidate: the one favored by the party apparatus, the big donors, the Republicans who care more about the party’s power than about ideology. We have been told again and again that the Republican rank and file is more hostile than ever to the party’s establishment, which they regard as a collection of sellouts. So how can Romney be on track to win the nomination?
The answer is that the Republican establishment almost always wins presidential-nomination contests, and conservative insurgents almost never do. Since 1984, nobody substantially to the right of the party establishment has won the nomination. Make a mental list of the last four Republican nominees -- George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain -- and the notion of a Romney victory in the primaries becomes less surprising.
Establishment-oriented candidates keep winning for two reasons. The first is that the party establishment has moved to the right, too, co-opting conservatives who might otherwise have overthrown it.
In particular, it has avoided clashing with conservatives on issues of intense concern to them. The first president Bush turned against abortion. Bob Dole, after losing the 1988 nomination fight partly because conservatives distrusted him on taxes, signed a pledge to oppose any further tax increases to get the 1996 nomination. The second Bush spent much of 1999 assuring Republicans he was more conservative than his father. McCain, too, moved to the right to win the primaries, pledging to keep in perpetuity tax cuts he had previously voted against.
But it’s not just the nominees themselves who have moved right, and it’s not just a matter of political convenience. The officials, donors and operatives who make up the Republican establishment are much more conservative than their counterparts of two decades ago. They are more likely to be pro-life, more firmly opposed to tax increases, and more skeptical of environmental regulation. And these positions are typically held sincerely, if not always passionately.
Splitting the Vote
The second reason the establishment wins is that its opponents never unify behind another candidate. In 1988, conservatives who couldn’t support the establishment candidates split three ways. Pat Robertson ran as the social-conservative champion; Pete du Pont as the voice of economic libertarians; and Jack Kemp as the “movement conservative” who could unite both groups. The same pattern held in the next open nomination contest, in 1996, with Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm playing these roles. Neither the social conservatives nor the economic libertarians could win the nomination on their own, but their attempt to do so made it impossible to assemble a winning coalition combining the most conservative elements of the party.
The influx of evangelical Christian conservatives to the Republican Party has pulled it rightward, but also made winning the nomination easier for establishmentarian candidates. Mike Huckabee’s campaign in 2008 illustrates the dynamic. He asked for the votes of his fellow evangelicals on the basis of religious solidarity. It was “important,” he said, for a presidential candidate to speak “the language of Zion.”
There are enough evangelical voters to make this a tempting strategy, and Huckabee won some primaries and caucuses. But the strategy can’t win the nomination because it leaves non-evangelicals and even some evangelicals cold. Huckabee’s numbers among non-evangelicals were dismal. He didn’t crack 15 percent in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan or South Carolina.
Although a candidacy based on evangelical identity politics can’t prevail, it can prevent a movement-conservative candidate from being nominated. Winning a majority to the right of the party establishment requires building a coalition that includes most evangelical conservatives but goes beyond them, and a Huckabee-style candidacy makes that impossible.
The movement-conservative candidate has another burden: He is competing for votes with both the establishment candidate and candidates who appeal to subsets of conservatives. So all of those other candidates have an incentive to attack him, while not necessarily having an incentive to attack each other. Thus, McCain and Huckabee -- and everyone else, for that matter -- ganged up on Romney in 2008, when he was trying to run as the movement candidate.
What Romney Learned
Perhaps having learned from that experience, Romney has decided to play a different role this time. Perry is running as the conservative candidate, and so he is, as he put it, the pinata at every debate: a target for Romney, but also for Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain.
The funny thing is that even though Romney is running as the “moderate,” rather than the “conservative,” in the race, his actual positions are to the right of the ones he had in 2008. For example, he signed a pledge to oppose raising the debt ceiling until Congress passes a Balanced Budget Amendment. Like previous successful establishment candidates, he is placating the party base.
And that’s how it works in the Republican Party, post-Ronald Reagan. The establishment gets the nominations, and the conservatives get the party.
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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