System Failure

09.23.12

Michael Tomasky: Don’t Blame Mitt for the GOP’s Problems

Conservative columnists are lining up to dump on Romney. But the real problem isn’t the candidate or his campaign. It’s the Republican Party and its pathologies.

Yes, Mitt Romney had a week I wouldn’t wish on ... well, Mitt Romney. Yes, his campaign is incompetent, as Peggy Noonan wrote Friday. Yes, there is something really off about the guy personally. But as conservatives like Noonan start in on Romney vilification, I feel the need to stand up and reiterate: Romney’s problems aren’t all Romney’s fault. They’re not even half his fault. They’re chiefly the fault of a movement and political party that has gone off the deep end. Almost every idiotic thing Romney has done, after all, can be traced to the need he feels to placate groups of people who are way out there in their own ideological solar system, with no purchase at all on how normal Americans feel and think about things. This is much the harder question for Noonan and others to confront, and they really ought to ponder it.

Since he started running, Romney has had to cater to four factions in the GOP, each of which contributes in its way to the party’s self-destructiveness: the rich and their apologists, who think Barack Obama has made life in America well-nigh impossible for those earning $1 million a year; the Tea Party populists, the middle-aged and older white people who feel intense resentment against Obama and his America; the foreign-policy neocons, who invented this fable about Obama apologizing for America and so on; and the rabble-rousers—Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, etc., whose megaphones announce all these anxieties and others.

These four groups have each been holding guns to Romney’s temple. He’s a weak man, yes. But in a way—in only this one particular way—I feel a little sorry for him. These groups permit no room to maneuver whatsoever. None. Not an inch. So when something happens that is in their wheelhouse, the expectation immediately arises that Romney will utter every syllable precisely as they want to hear it.

So it was with the neocons after the Cairo and Benghazi riots. Now, I’m sure it’s partly true that Romney and his team are one big overeager floppy-eared dog, galumphing across the lawn anxious to please their masters. But the master sets the dynamic in place. There’s no doubt whatsoever that if the Romney people didn’t feel they had to rush to please that crowd, he wouldn’t have issued that statement at an utterly inappropriate time and then tried absurdly to defend it the next morning.

The same can be said with regard to Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan. We don’t really know that this was forced on him per se by the right, but we have reason to believe that the logic, shall we say, of his naming Ryan was made clear to him. And what good has Ryan done him? Did you notice the poll last week, which deserves more attention than it’s received, showing that Ryan was a less popular vice-presidential choice than Sarah Palin? This is the man the gun-holding factions said was a brilliant, game-changing choice. He’s game changing all right, though not as they intended.

And it’s the same story on the 47 percent. The man who asked that question was speaking very clearly for Faction A above. There can be little doubt that the vast majority of the people in that room, maybe every person, felt his pain, and Romney knew exactly what he had to say. Again, it’s certainly a two-way street; Romney obviously believed every word he said. But he knew the catechism.

And by the way, does anyone think a Republican presidential candidate would have said this, even behind closed doors, in 1992 or 1996 or 2000 or even in 2008? I think there’s no chance. It’s probably the sort of thing a lot of them thought. But it’s something they never, ever would have said. They’d have known better. So the existence of these factions in their precise form is new. The concealed anxieties of all these factions were brought to the surface by the financial crisis and its aftermath, the black guy standing up there representing the America that they don’t know and that scares them, and the former Massachusetts governor who seems squishy and must forever prove his loyalty. And boy is the lid ever off now.

What good has Ryan done Romney? Did you notice the poll last week showing that Ryan was a less popular vice-presidential choice than Sarah Palin?

Could Jim Baker fix this campaign, as Noonan asserts or hopes? He’s a knife fighter, there’s no doubt about that. Look at Florida 2000. But remember, he came in during the late innings to help Poppy Bush’s 1992 campaign, and that ended pretty ingloriously. And besides, he’s 82 now. Can he work 14-hour days, make crisp, snap decisions? One could argue that Romney’s gotten all the help he needs this year from 82-year-old men.

Romney deserves everything that is happening to him (I guess I would wish this past week on him after all). But it isn’t happening because of Mitt Romney alone, or even the now-hated Stuart Stevens. It’s happening because of the factions and their guns. It’s happening because of a party and movement that are out of control and out of touch. There is not a prominent Republican in the country who could be doing any better, with the possible lone exception of Jeb Bush, but it’s probably too early yet for another Bush. Face it, Republicans: he was and is your best candidate, and he’s tanking now more because of you than because of him.