Politics

02.29.12

GOP Primary Results: A Suicidal Cage Match

Romney and Santorum are coming out of Michigan bruised—and detached from reality in the eyes of most voters. John Avlon on why this primary fight is a loss for everyone.

Mitt Romney dodged campaign disaster last night, pulling off a 3-point win over Rick Santorum in his home state of Michigan, while splitting the state’s delegates.

But the real question is why the race was so close—and that says as much about the current state of the GOP as it does about Mitt’s uninspiring campaign.

Keep in mind that Mitt won Michigan by 9 points in 2008, defeating the state’s winner in 2000, John McCain. Romney was then the conservatives’ favorite candidate in the race, inspiring hosannas from church leaders and the talk radio crowd. He won “very conservative” voters overwhelmingly last time around, but he lost those voters last night to Rick Santorum, along with strong supporters of the Tea Party, blue-collar workers and evangelicals—in other words, his party’s populist base.

Questions about Mitt’s commitment to conservative principles are nothing new—he had already done a 180 on virtually every social issue in 2008. What’s changed is the elevation of hyperpartisan polarization within the Republican Party.

But in a party that increasingly insists on ideological purity, any dissent is seen as an unforgivable sin.

Romney complained about these forces before polls closed yesterday, saying, “It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments … We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusatory about President Obama that you’re going to jump in the polls.” Put aside the mock shock—after all, Romney has been more than happy to throw around red-meat rhetoric in the past. The point is that he has not been able to do so with the same unbridled enthusiasm as his chief rivals, Rick Santorum, or (previously) Newt Gingrich. Romney’s sense of responsibility is seen as a weakness.

But take a step back and consider the absurdity of Mitt Romney trying to beat back a serious challenge from Rick Santorum in Michigan. Saying that with a straight face even three months ago would have been a joke, a headline out of The Onion.

Forget the fact that Santorum lost his senate reelection by nearly 20 points in the pivotal swing state of Pennsylvania—something rarely considered a stepping-stone to the presidency. Santorum’s extreme social conservatism—evidenced most recently in his outbursts against higher education and contraception as well as his vomitous reaction to reading John F. Kennedy’s 1960 separation-of-church-and-state speech—alienates centrist and independent swing voters who will ultimately decide the winner of this election. These are debates most folks thought were settled at least a generation ago.

In contrast, Romney is characterized as a “Massachusetts Moderate.” But Romney can be considered a centrist only if you accept the fact that he has been lying about his positions on social issues since he started running for president six years ago.

From backing a federal marriage amendment to calling for the overturn of Roe v. Wade, he has declined to pander to the far right in terms of policy only in his avoidance of “personhood” forums and associated amendments. But in a party that increasingly insists on ideological purity, any dissent is seen as an unforgivable sin.

Romney has fed this beast by trying to attack his opponents for “voting like Democrats” in the past, blithely ignoring his more obvious weaknesses on this front. It is an unconvincing bit of salesmanship that betrays little perspective on himself, let alone the presence of core convictions.

It’s remarkable that the Tea Party movement, which defined the 2010 midterm-election landslide, is essentially left without a candidate. Ron Paul’s libertarian principles helped inspire the movement, but the Tea Party has failed to comprehensively rally around his candidacy. For a movement that purported to be agnostic on social issues, Rick Santorum is a flawed candidate at best—a throwback to the Bush-era big government conservatism that they theoretically opposed at the outset. And Mitt Romney is the anti–Tea Party candidate, refusing to meet with many activists and having passed the state model for the national health-care reform that enflamed the Tea Party during the “death panel” protests of 2009.

By eking out a win in Michigan, Mitt Romney has avoided the outright revolt of Republican leaders looking for a winner in November. The most inspired argument even some supporters have been able to muster in recent days is that at least Romney would be less of a drag on down-ticket races than Rick Santorum as the nominee. He does not inspire love, and his organizational advantage no longer intimidates. Romney’s willingness to win with negative ads is showing signs of backfiring among conservatives, let alone independents. And the ugliness of this primary race, combined with its obsessive courtship of the far right and its weak candidate field is contributing to the low turnout we’ve seen in state after state.

Yes, Mitt Romney is a deeply flawed and unusually disingenuous candidate. But let’s be honest—among this crowd he is the most electable nominee. Combined with the news of center-right Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe’s decision not to run for reelection—making control of the Senate a steeper climb—the GOP is faced with the need to reconcile activists’ rabid contempt for centrists with the realities of winning elections beyond their hyperpartisan base. The party leaders’ barely muted panic about the possibility of Romney losing Michigan—and the prospect of a general election cliff dive with any other declared candidate—was a reflection of this dynamic.

Republicans are learning that some of the conservative populist forces they encouraged to angrily shout down President Obama cannot be appeased without absolutism. You reap what you sow. In this extreme ideological cage match, removed from the majority of the American people, the GOP is left bloodied, bruised, and unenthused. The stakes right now feel like less about actually winning the White House than fighting to avoid general-election suicide.