Is former Gov. Mitt Romney a better campaigner than I thought—or are his closest rivals just that pathetic?
As things stand now, the former Massachusetts governor will enjoy an astonishingly painless pivot into the general election. The albatross of the individual mandate; the flip-flopping; the barely-concealed technocratic centrism; the robotic persona—it's all there. But a succession of more authentic-seeming conservatives hasn't been able to land a significant blow.
In this, Romney is a bit like former president Bill Clinton. Columnist Charles Krauthammer, on the eve of the 1996 election, lamented that he was the "Velcro President":
This is no Teflon presidency. This is Velcro. Everything sticks to this man—Flowers and Jones, Whitewater and Filegate. But it does not matter. Expectations of presidential character have fallen so low with Clinton that the people can believe the worst about him and still want him where he is.
But let's not push the comparison too far. Romney remains an unconventional sort of frontrunner (and, it should be said, a man of un-Clintonian moral character). His numbers have been steady, but static. He is the "second-choice" candidate, he knows it, and he'll happily ride that horse all the way to Tampa.
The more pertinent question is, what's wrong with the Tea Party? Assuming that Herman Cain will eventually fall back to earth, just like Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Rick Perry before him, Romney will capture the GOP nomination while pointedly keeping the Tea Party at a safe and comfortable distance.
How does he do this?
Ramesh Ponnuru has part of the answer: the "establishment" has become steadily more conservative over the last 20 years.
I think the rest of the answer lies in the Tea Party itself.
About a year ago, I wondered whether the Tea Party was something to respect and/or fear, as it seemed to be throughout 2009 and into the 2010 primary season, or if it was "just a bloc of conventional conservatives in anti-authoritarian drag."
Twelve months later, the question answers itself.
The Tea Party is/was composed primarily of religious conservatives, seniors worried about Obamacare's impact on Medicare, and anti-immigrant curmudgeons. The libertarian ethos the movement projected was an utter fiction, and one that the national press corps briefly lent credence to.
In her Iowa speech last month, former Gov. Sarah Palin offered a fleeting glimpse of what the Tea Party was supposed to represent—a transpartisan attack on the bosom buddies Big Government and Big Business. More recently, Conor Friedersdorf muses quixotically about what a potential Tea Party-Occupy Wall Street alliance would look like.
The problem is Tea Partyers, as conventional conservatives, were never intellectually prepared to deliver on this threat. There'd been talk about ending corporate welfare in Republican circles for years. The TARP bailouts added a powerful new ingredient to this critique.
But when it came down to it, what did Wall Street and corporate America ever have to fear from the Tea Party? Lower corporate taxes and regulatory rollback? Seriously?
If CEO types truly fear a freer free market, why do they constantly complain on the shout shows of being "handcuffed" by Washington? And for crying out loud, didn't I watch the Tea Party movement go viral on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade?
The Tea Party, ultimately, had nothing new to say.
Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain can take a measure of comfort in this fact when their candidacies eventually conclude.
- See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
- Vote: How Much Is Mitt Romney's Mormonism An Issue for Conservatives?
- See a slide show of 14 establishment candidates who lost to insurgents.