Even though nobody has yet cast a vote in the primaries, Republicans are increasingly resigned to Gov. Mitt Romney’s winning the party’s presidential nomination. Every week he gets a few more endorsements from Republican officeholders. He has never had a commanding lead in the polls, but one by one the other candidates who have occupied the top tier with him — first Rep. Michele Bachmann, then Gov. Rick Perry, then Herman Cain — have fallen back out of it. The current surge for Newt Gingrich looks like one last fling before Republicans settle down with Romney.
Republicans should not be gloomy about this prospect. Romney isn’t merely the candidate who is likely to win the Republican primaries. He’s the candidate who should win them. That’s why he’s likely to win.
We all know the knocks on Romney. His health-care plan in Massachusetts was Obamacare in one state. He’s a flip-flopper. Inauthentic. His conservative detractors say he’s the establishment/moderate candidate — or worse. (Actual Thanksgiving conversation in the Ponnuru home: Conservative brother-in-law: “So, which of these characters are you supporting?” Me: “I think Romney’s the best of the bunch.” Him: “I didn’t know you were a Democrat.”)
It’s true that Romney took a sharp right turn when he moved from state to national politics. But it’s also true that in 2008 he was the candidate behind whom Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, among other conservative notables, said that the conservative movement should rally in order to stop John McCain from getting the nomination. He has not moved left since that time. His positions on policy questions are almost all the same as they were then. On a few issues he has moved right: He now favors a market-oriented reform to Medicare, for example.
If Romney was to McCain’s right then, he is still. He’s to George W. Bush’s right, too. Bush never came out for the Medicare reform Romney has endorsed. Bush never said that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, either. Romney has. Romney’s long list of policy advisers includes people who are, within their fields, roughly in sync with the politics of the Bush administration or to its right; almost nobody is significantly to its left.
If Mitt Romney becomes president, he will almost certainly be dealing with John Boehner as speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. While they, too, have their conservative detractors, they are the most conservative congressional leaders Republicans have had in modern times, and they will exert a rightward influence on the Romney administration. If they send him legislation to repeal Obamacare, cut taxes, or reform entitlements, he will sign it where Obama would veto it. If at some other point in his presidency a liberal-run Congress sends him tax increases, he will veto them where Obama would sign. Compared with President Obama, a President Romney would do more to protect the defense budget.
A President Romney’s judicial nominees would be superior to President Obama’s simply because he would not be trying to stack the bench with liberal activists. But they are likely to far exceed that low bar. Each Republican president since the Nixon-Ford era has nominated a higher percentage of conservatives as justices to the Supreme Court than his predecessor. That’s mostly a testament to the growth and development of the conservative legal network. Romney is likely to look for nominees whom conservative lawyers like — Robert Bork is a top adviser — who are professionally accomplished, and who cannot be portrayed as extreme. If Republicans hold the Senate they will almost certainly be confirmed. If they do not, they will probably be confirmed.
Romney’s regulatory agencies will be relatively restrained. His appointees to the National Labor Relations Board will not punish Boeing for locating a plant in a right-to-work state. He will act, within the limits of his legal authority, to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from imposing expensive restrictions on carbon emissions. He will reinstate conscience protections for pro-life health-care workers.
It’s true that almost any Republican president, not just Romney, would do these things. But that’s the point. The Republican party now features a remarkable degree of programmatic consensus. The entire field wants to cut corporate tax rates, convert Medicaid into block grants, and (the asterisk candidacy of Gary Johnson aside) protect unborn human life. Even Jon Huntsman, the candidate positioned farthest left in the field, favors these policies. None of them enjoyed such uniform support in previous primaries, and some of them had none.
When the candidates differ, it is typically on issues that are unlikely to matter during the next presidency. Representative Bachmann may, unlike some of the others, wish to abolish the EPA, but no conceivable Congress within the next eight years will grant her wish.
The narrowness of the candidates’ differences on pertinent issues militates in favor of picking the one who can best implement the sensible agenda they largely share. It also reduces conservatives’ need to worry about candidates’ sincerity. If President Romney were to do an about-face on carbon caps, the right to life, or taxes, he would be going to war with the vast majority of his party. The fact that conservatives do not regard him as the leader of their movement tightens this constraint on him. A Republican president with more capital among conservatives would be able to deplete it.
Romney’s public positions and his political interests both suggest he would govern as a conservative, albeit a cautious one. Many conservatives want more than that from a president, more than executive experience and public agreement with them on the issues. They want a president who shares their convictions and instincts, who will actively seek occasions to advance their views, and who will take political risks for them. They are right to want these things, for the most part, and there is no guarantee Romney will deliver them.
On the other hand, there is also something to be said for calculation in a politician. Successful political leaders need to have a realistic sense of what public opinion, and the political system, will bear, a sense cultivated by the habit of calculation. And there is a limit to how much political risk conservatives should want a president allied to them to take. Most of the time conservative activists should be trying to reduce the risks of advancing conservative initiatives rather than to goad elected officials to political recklessness. Conservatives should, that is, point the way for ambitious politicians to advance good ideas that can command the support of a national center-right majority.
Governor Romney’s political career may not reflect the ideal balance between conviction and calculation. But a presidential primary offers a choice among imperfect alternatives, not embodied ideals. Weighed against the available alternatives, Romney comes out ahead — way ahead — because he is the only one of the primary candidates with a good shot at achieving a prerequisite for advancing a conservative agenda as president: namely, actually becoming president.
Huntsman is highly unlikely to win the nomination because Republican voters divine in him a disdain for them, and return it. The others, even if they got the nomination, would be almost-certain losers in a general election. They are either too out of sync with the electorate, too personally erratic, or both.
Representative Bachmann says that President Obama is certain to lose reelection, so Republicans should feel free to nominate the candidate of their dreams, without regard to electability. The president certainly looks beatable. But writing him off is unwise. His approval numbers are weak but not disastrous, the Republican party remains unpopular, incumbency almost always carries advantages, and the composition of the electorate is likely to be much more Democratic than it was in 2010. If the bottom drops out of the economy, perhaps as a result of Europe’s disorders, then maybe even Gingrich or Perry could win the race. But the stakes are too high for that kind of gamble.
Even if one of them did win the White House, what we have seen of their campaigns suggests that his presidency would be a bumpy ride. In Perry’s case, the problem would be an apparent unfamiliarity with national issues that looks good only in comparison with Herman Cain’s proud ignorance. Gingrich, meanwhile, is a constant reminder that political leaders can have too much, as well as too little, imagination. His recent proposals on immigration are classic Gingrich: innovative-sounding, accompanied by high-tech gadgetry, and wholly absurd. Local community boards will decide which illegal immigrants to expel! We will be “humane,” while denying temporary workers the vote and stripping their children of citizenship!
The last time Gingrich held office, he reached a depth of unpopularity that suggested that the public did not merely disagree with his policies but disliked him as a person. Memories have faded, and his current fans say he is a changed man. But he still has the rhetorical style — by turns incendiary, grandiose, and abrasive — that turned off middle-of-the-road Americans then. (November 16: “Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher . . . ”) And he does not seem to have learned that aspiring presidents should weigh their words carefully. Recall the events that led to his campaign’s meltdown this summer, in which he first praised Paul Ryan’s plan for entitlements, then condemned it as “right-wing social engineering,” and finally apologized to Ryan for the comment.
There is another issue with Gingrich, the broaching of which risks cruelty but cannot be avoided in the cold analysis Republicans have to perform. We don’t know whether Gingrich’s marital history will weigh heavily on voters, but we know it won’t help. The contrast to President Obama’s family will tell against him. Gingrich’s election would represent several firsts. He would be the first president with multiple ex-wives, and the first president with any ex-wives who speak negatively about him on the record. He would bring with him the first first lady who could be labeled a “home wrecker.” President Obama would not have to say a word about any of this for the press to make it an issue.
Governor Romney has his weaknesses as a candidate, too. In the past only high-income voters have demonstrated a natural affinity for him. His flip-flops are well documented. He won’t be able to take full advantage of the unpopularity of Obamacare. A significant number of voters will hold his Mormonism against him, although Republican voters in recent surveys seem likely to look past this misgiving in the interest of retiring Obama and most Democrats who oppose Mormon candidates won’t be available to any Republican nominee. But he is also reasonable, articulate — phenomenally articulate, by the standards of recent Republican presidential candidates — and reassuring. Democrats will try to make him into a scary figure, but they will have less to work with than if Republicans nominated Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Perry, or Rick Santorum. He has improved as a campaigner, and now usually projects an air of command that eluded him in the last presidential race.
To Romney’s conservative critics, this assessment is all wrong. Romney cannot win in November 2012, they say, because conservative voters will lack the motivation to cast ballots for someone so uninspiring and moderate. Thomas Sowell and George Will are among the conservative heavyweights who have made this case recently, with Sowell noting pointedly that the conservative Reagan won two presidential elections where moderates such as Bob Dole and John McCain have lost them.
Yet George W. Bush won two elections, albeit close ones, with positions to Romney’s left and rhetoric that attempted to distance him from the bulk of conservatives. (He was the compassionate one, you may recall.) The truth is that Republicans have never lost a presidential election because an otherwise viable nominee could not get conservatives to vote. The exit polls from the 2008 election show that the race was lost in the center of the electorate. If Romney is anywhere near Obama in the polls in October 2012, conservative voters will show up to help him. To win, though, he will also need some votes from people who voted for Obama in 2008 — and he has a much better chance of getting them than his rivals do.
So far the Republican primaries have been a testament to the common sense of the party rank-and-file. As candidates and near-candidates have enjoyed their bursts of publicity, Republican voters have greeted them one by one with an open mind and high hopes, only to reject them as their flaws became apparent. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain have all gone through this process. In reacting this way, Republican voters have disproven the caricatures that liberals and too many conservatives have indulged: that they care only about attitude and volume, not knowledge or judgment.
The right thing for Republican voters to do now is to make Romney undergo the rigors of a competitive primary and then grant him the nomination. My bet is that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. This article appears in its December 19, 2011, issue.