This November, millions of conservatives will find themselves in the familiar position of holding their noses to vote for a problematic Republican presidential candidate, because the alternative is far worse.
Although conservatives don’t exactly have fond memories of the candidacies of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in 1996 and Senator John McCain in 2008, the almost certain nomination of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has its own sting.
In 2010, tea-party energy swept a new generation of conviction conservatives into statehouses, governors’ mansions, and the U.S. Congress. Many on the right held out hope that the big payoff would be putting a principled conservative in the White House.
Instead, at a pivotal juncture in American history, the best hope for replacing President Obama now rests with a man who claims to be “severely conservative” with the same degree of conviction he once conveyed when claiming to be “progressive.”
In a new e-book, Conservative Survival in the Romney Era, I try to reconcile two competing responses on the right — disillusionment on the one end and a desire to reflexively fall in line behind Romney on the other.
Clearly, sitting out the election isn’t an option for conservatives, given the need to defeat Obama. On the other hand, refraining from criticizing Romney now that he’s the presumptive nominee would lead us down a treacherous path.
In 2000, the short-term desire to defeat Al Gore made conservatives overlook the dangers inherent in George W. Bush’s big-government “compassionate conservatism.” Then, as conservatives expended energy defending Bush from liberal attacks during his presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress tossed aside limited-government principles, and spending soared. It rose from $1.86 trillion in 2001 to $2.98 trillion in 2008, according to the Congressional Budget Office, an increase of 60 percent. Not only did Bush fail to reform entitlements, he actually expanded them — in the form of the Medicare prescription-drug law — by more than any other president since Lyndon B. Johnson.
As the United States hurtles toward a fiscal crisis fueled by runaway spending and an unsustainable welfare state, the nation cannot afford a repeat of this pattern under a Romney presidency. That’s why it is important for conservatives to make it clear early that they will have no qualms about criticizing Romney if he doesn’t run and govern as a conservative, although they will gladly give him their support when he earns it.
Clearly, a lot of conservatives are skeptical that the formerly pro-choice, pro–gun control, pro-mandate governor is genuinely committed to conservatism. But instead of rehashing the primary campaign, conservatives should look at productive ways they can keep pressure on Romney to make sure he adheres to a limited-government agenda on key issues such as tax reform, entitlements, and health care.
Ironically, one of the most frustrating aspects of Romney’s character — a calculating political nature that has enabled him to effortlessly reverse prior statements and positions — could prove essential to conservative efforts to pressure him into doing the right thing.
Critics of Romney who argue that he’s really a liberal and boosters who claim that he’s a true conservative both err by attempting to understand Romney through an ideological prism. In reality, he’s a businessman who wants to apply his well-honed management skills to the public sector. If one is to be successful in the business world, the important thing is to satisfy customers and maximize profits.
If Romney is convinced that conservatives will enthusiastically support him no matter what, then he’ll make the calculation that he has room to migrate left during the general-election campaign and throughout a potential presidency. But if he feels uneasy about his support among conservatives, he’s much more likely to run and govern from the right.
Rather than resting on their 2010 laurels, conservatives should work hard this year to put as many principled lawmakers as possible into Congress — people who won’t merely talk tough about shrinking government when a Democrat is in the White House, but who will be willing to resist calls for party unity and stand up to a Republican president if he tries to expand government.
Supporting Romney as the only alternative to Obama doesn’t mean that conservatives have to spend the summer and fall defending Romneycare to their friends or making excuses about his history of flipflops to their neighbors. By staying true to their principles, conservatives will not only feel better about themselves, but they’ll also improve the odds that Romney will run as a conservative in 2012 and govern as one if elected.
— Philip Klein is senior editorial writer at the Washington Examiner and author of the new e-book Conservative Survival in the Romney Era.