Many conservatives are finding it difficult to pick a presidential candidate. Each of the men running for the Republican nomination has strengths, and none has everything — all the traits, all the positions — we are looking for. Equally conservative analysts can reach, and have reached, different judgments in this matter. There are fine conservatives supporting each of these Republicans.
Our guiding principle has always been to select the most conservative viable candidate. In our judgment, that candidate is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Unlike some other candidates in the race, Romney is a full-spectrum conservative: a supporter of free-market economics and limited government, moral causes such as the right to life and the preservation of marriage, and a foreign policy based on the national interest. While he has not talked much about the importance of resisting ethnic balkanization — none of the major candidates has — he supports enforcing the immigration laws and opposes amnesty. Those are important steps in the right direction.
Uniting the conservative coalition is not enough to win a presidential election, but it is a prerequisite for building on that coalition. Rudolph Giuliani did extraordinary work as mayor of New York and was inspirational on 9/11. But he and Mike Huckabee would pull apart the coalition from opposite ends: Giuliani alienating the social conservatives, and Huckabee the economic (and foreign-policy) conservatives. A Republican party that abandoned either limited government or moral standards would be much diminished in the service it could give the country.
Two other major candidates would be able to keep the coalition together, but have drawbacks of their own. John McCain is not as conservative as Romney. He sponsored and still champions a campaign-finance law that impinged on fundamental rights of political speech; he voted against the Bush tax cuts; he supported this year’s amnesty bill, although he now says he understands the need to control the border before doing anything else.
Despite all that and more, he is a hero with a record that is far more good than bad. He has been a strong and farsighted supporter of the Iraq War, and, in a trying political season for him, he has preserved and even enhanced his reputation for dignity and seriousness. There would be worse nominees for the GOP (see above). But McCain ran an ineffectual campaign for most of the year and is still paying for it.
Fred Thompson is as conservative as Romney, and has distinguished himself with serious proposals on Social Security, immigration, and defense. But Thompson has never run any large enterprise — and he has not run his campaign well, either. Conservatives were excited this spring to hear that he might enter the race, but have been disappointed by the reality. He has been fading in crucial early states. He has not yet passed the threshold test of establishing for voters that he truly wants to be president.
Romney is an intelligent, articulate, and accomplished former businessman and governor. At a time when voters yearn for competence and have soured on Washington because too often the Bush administration has not demonstrated it, Romney offers proven executive skill. He has demonstrated it in everything he has done in his professional life, and his tightly organized, disciplined campaign is no exception. He himself has shown impressive focus and energy.
It is true that he has less foreign-policy experience than Thompson and (especially) McCain, but he has more executive experience than both. Since almost all of the candidates have the same foreign-policy principles, what matters most is which candidate has the skills to execute that vision.
Like any Republican, he would have an uphill climb next fall. But he would be able to offer a persuasive outsider’s critique of Washington. His conservative accomplishments as governor showed that he can work with, and resist, a Democratic legislature. He knows that not every feature of the health-care plan he enacted in Massachusetts should be replicated nationally, but he can also speak with more authority than any of the other Republican candidates about this pressing issue. He would also have credibility on the economy, given his success as a businessman and a manager of the Olympics.
Some conservatives question his sincerity. It is true that he has reversed some of his positions. But we should be careful not to overstate how much he has changed. In 1994, when he tried to unseat Ted Kennedy, he ran against higher taxes and government-run health care, and for school choice, a balanced budget amendment, welfare reform, and “tougher measures to stop illegal immigration.” He was no Rockefeller Republican even then.
We believe that Romney is a natural ally of social conservatives. He speaks often about the toll of fatherlessness in this country. He may not have thought deeply about the political dimensions of social issues until, as governor, he was confronted with the cutting edge of social liberalism. No other Republican governor had to deal with both human cloning and court-imposed same-sex marriage. He was on the right side of both issues, and those battles seem to have made him see the stakes of a broad range of public-policy issues more clearly. He will work to put abortion on a path to extinction. Whatever the process by which he got to where he is on marriage, judges, and life, we’re glad he is now on our side — and we trust him to stay there.
He still has some convincing to do with other conservatives. Romney has been plagued by the sense that his is a passionless, paint-by-the-numbers conservatism. If he is to win the nomination, he will have to show more of the kind of emotion and resolve he demonstrated in his College Station “Faith in America” speech.
For some people, Romney’s Mormonism is still a barrier. But we are not electing a pastor. The notion that he will somehow be controlled by Salt Lake City or engaged in evangelism for his church is outlandish. He deserves to be judged on his considerable merits as a potential president. As he argued in his College Station speech, his faith informs his values, which he has demonstrated in both the private and public sectors. In none of these cases have any specific doctrines of his church affected the quality of his leadership. Romney is an exemplary family man and a patriot whose character matches the high office to which he aspires.
More than the other primary candidates, Romney has President Bush’s virtues and avoids his flaws. His moral positions, and his instincts on taxes and foreign policy, are the same. But he is less inclined to federal activism, less tolerant of overspending, better able to defend conservative positions in debate, and more likely to demand performance from his subordinates. A winning combination, by our lights. In this most fluid and unpredictable Republican field, we vote for Mitt Romney.