The most acute division on the right — the one that will give Mitt Romney the most trouble — is not between moderates and hard-core right-wingers, between electability-minded pragmatists and ideologues, or between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. It is between those Republicans who disagree with Barack Obama, believing his policies to be mistaken, and those who hate Barack Obama, believing him to be wicked. Mitt Romney is the candidate of the former, but is regarded with suspicion, or worse, by the latter. The former group of Republicans would be happy merely to win the presidential election, but the latter are after something more: a national repudiation of President Obama, of his governmental overreach, and of managerial progressivism mainly as practiced by Democrats but also as practiced by Republicans.
It is unlikely that those seeking a national act of electoral penance for having elected Barack Obama are going to get what they are after. For one thing, the number of Americans who believe President Obama to be merely incompetent is far greater than the number of Americans who believe him to be, not to put too fine a point on it, evil. For another, that larger group of voters is, for once, probably right.
Presidents are cultural lightning rods, the last two more so than many others. This has some weird effects. George W. Bush was hated and loathed by the Democratic base, which is aggressively anti-religious and seeks to impose a liberal cultural homogeneity on the nation (the totems of which are gay marriage, abortion on demand, and the environmental liturgy) to such an extent that even unremarkable initiatives sent them into a panic when they bore the imprimatur of W. President Bush’s office of faith-based initiatives, for example, represented the sort of thing that could easily have been signed into law by Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. Far from representing the camel’s nose of Christian theocracy poking under the tent of the First Amendment, the office’s oversight council today includes the president of Seedco, the founder of Asian Indian Women of America, Rabbi David N. Saperstein, the president of Catholic Charities, the head of Big Brothers Big Sisters America, and the director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies — an all-American mix, with no Torquemada or Chillingsworth to be found. But because the initiative touches on religious organizations and was brought into being by President Bush, it was greeted in many quarters as though it were a revival of the Salem witch trials. Faith-based initiatives may be a good idea or a bad idea, but the program is not what its most hysterical critics thought it was.
President Obama, for his part, has signed some truly awful pieces of legislation into law: the stimulus package, Cash for Clunkers, and, most notably, Obamacare. Bad as these are, the reaction among some conservatives has been overblown, and I write that as the author of a book that contains the sentence, “Of course Obamacare is socialism.” The president has been described as a budding Hitler, a bush-league Stalin, a saboteur, a revolutionary, etc. But as lamentable as President Obama’s agenda has been, there is not much that is especially remarkable about it. President Obama is not a revolutionary Bolshevik; he is a conventional liberal of a very familiar kind. Obamacare is precisely the same sort of program that a Pres. Al Gore or a Pres. John Kerry might have signed into law. The most remarkable thing about President Obama is that, unlike even the masterly Bill Clinton, he managed to get a big part of the Democrats’ health-care agenda enacted as law. He did this with a major assist from his predecessor, who left him with a much more liberal Congress than might otherwise have been elected.
A different Democrat, or a Republican, would have put together a different kind of stimulus package, and probably (probably) a smaller one, but the wrongheaded thinking behind it is hardly revolutionary. Cash for Clunkers and Solyndra are the most characteristic of President Obama’s initiatives, marked as they are by fanciful thinking, cronyism, and futility. But President Obama presses the Right’s buttons in more or less the same way President Bush pushed the Left’s, and that is about something other than (or in addition to) his policy choices. It is about who he is. At this point, Democrats will say, in that smug way of theirs: “And who he is is black, and that’s what this is all about.” I am not such a Pollyanna (or so deaf) as to believe that the tone of the president’s skin is a complete non-issue among his most bitter critics, but it is a much smaller issue than Democrats such as Eric Holder would have you believe.
Mitt Romney’s critique of President Obama is not that of Newt Gingrich, who has borrowed Dinesh D’Souza’s formulation that Obama’s views are grounded in the “Kenyan anti-colonialism” of his estranged father. Nor is it of the “Hitler Believed in Government-Run Health Care, Too” variety one hears among the lesser luminaries of talk radio. Romney’s critique is that Obama is a manager in way over his head, that he does not know what he is doing, and that his attempts to solve problems he does not understand are making things worse. This seems to me the more credible explanation. But if you are the sort of person who believes that President Obama is trying to destroy America, then Romney’s rhetoric is bound to prove unsatisfying, and you will go seeking sterner stuff — from Gingrich, from the cannier Rick Santorum, from also-rans such as Michele Bachmann or future also-rans such as Rick Perry, or from Ron Paul, if that’s your thing. Among my correspondents, there are many who are very plain about the fact that they would rather lose with Gingrich or Santorum than win with Romney.
Conservatives who suspect that Romney isn’t really in his heart of hearts one of us probably are correct. He doesn’t smell like a right-winger. But, given the cultural aspects of the presidency mentioned above, there may be some advantages to electing Mr. Plain Vanilla, assuming that he can get himself elected. It is very likely that whoever the next president is, he will be working with a Republican Senate and a Republican House, albeit a Republican House that may have a few fewer Republicans than today’s. If Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell wish to send the White House a balanced-budget deal, a President Romney might have an easier time negotiating it than would a lightning-rod President Gingrich or President Santorum, because it will feel more like a piece of prudent fiscal legislation than like a partisan assault on all that Democrats hold sacred and dear. The package could be precisely the same, but the politics change considerably depending on who is signing the bill into law. And, inconvenient as that fact is, there are going to be Democrats around in 2013, probably a lot of them. If you think that we can balance the budget and reform entitlements while ignoring them, you are kidding yourself.
This will be especially important when it comes to repealing Obamacare, the first step of which is: Do not announce that you are repealing Obamacare. The smart way to repeal Obamacare is to revisit the legislation and to amend it in ways that remove the worst of its statist overreach and replace it with the best available free-market alternatives. The Wyden-Ryan approach is one possible model for amending Obamacare, but it is not the only one, and it is not sufficient by itself. In any case, it will be more effective to amend the legislation in such a way that it is effectively repealed and replaced than to have an emotionally satisfying but probably unwinnable fight over repeal per se. The Supreme Court may give Republicans an assist on this by ruling against the mandate, which, regardless of any additional rulings about the remainder of the legislation, would render the entire package economically unworkable and necessitate reopening the case. This, too, probably will be easier to accomplish with a bloodless manager such as Romney at the helm than an ideological flamethrower.
In the next four years, Republicans should pass a major fiscal-consolidation package that balances the budget, and replace Obamacare in the course of enacting a broader entitlement-reform program. That’s a lot of work. That is the necessary domestic agenda. It requires winning, first of all, but it also requires getting some congressional Democrats on board and winning some support from Democrats and independents in the electorate. That will not feel good, but it is necessary.
For conservatives, it is a question of whether we choose a president based on who he is or based on what he can do. Those conservatives who believe that the way forward is to nominate the anti-Obama hold that Americans are so fed up with the president that they are ready to elevate a hardcore ideologue to the presidency. Andy McCarthy is representative of them when he writes that Gingrich is a “plausible candidate this time around, when in many cycles he would not be, because the main issue is Obama’s radicalism — the president has people frightened enough that what would appear to be insurmountable baggage in some elections could be cancelled out this time around.” But who are these frightened Americans for whom “the main issue” in 2012 is going to be Obama’s so-called radicalism? (And what do we call the 35 percent of Americans who support a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system? Insurgents?) Are we so sure of their support? In what states do they live, and why do they fail to show up in the polling data, which consistently find that voters’ main concerns are the economy, jobs, and related issues?
As the original campaign consultant put it, the critical thing in every battle is to know your enemy, to know yourself, and to know the terrain. That means, among other things, refusing to tell yourself fairy tales about how everybody is really on your side and just waiting to discover the fact.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review.