“Nobody trusts him” was the blunt judgment of a GOP professional confronting the increasing likelihood that Mitt Romney will be the Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee. “People think that as soon as he wins the nomination, he’ll become a Massachusetts governor again.” My informant is a veteran Republican from the West; he spoke soberly of the GOP frontrunner. “He’s a liberal Republican. He’s been running for president for half a decade. We know what he is.”
I asked what Romney’s support looks like in the GOP House. “There are lots of people who like him, a core. Not 10 percent, not 50. Say about a third are supporting him, or think he’s a solid guy. At least half are scared to death, because if he wins, it’ll be all about Romney.”
The Republican Party these days resembles a low-intensity quarrel of relatives and in-laws who are steeling themselves just long enough to get through the next big family event, November 2012. The four GOP members of Congress represented here come from four regions of the country, who requested anonymity so that they might speak freely about their party’s likely presidential nominee; they have diverse approaches to the presidential contest underway, but all are certain conservatives with comfortable connections to the Tea Party class of 2010.
Another GOP professional from the middle of the country observed that Romney isn’t trying to fool anyone. “He’s a Rockefeller Republican. This is mainstream Republicanism from the Northeast. Under Reagan, they’d be the Bushies. The base has to accept this. You and I have to accept this.”
The Rockefeller Republicans were defeated at the San Francisco convention in 1964 by the Barry Goldwater uprising. When Gerald Ford picked Nelson Rockefeller as vice president from 1974 to 1977, it was a consolation prize to a burned-out boom. Since the end of the Reagan administration, since the George H.W. Bush presidency collapsed thanks to the renegade Ross Perot, the general assumption has been that the last remnant of the Rockefeller Republicans had faded to dust.
“Pretend it’s 1988, when Bush ran after Reagan,” suggested a long-brooding Reagan conservative. “We’re the party of Reagan, but Reagan was the exception, not the rule. We’re looking at a Congress that’s the most hated in history. The right wing is complaining about Romney. The right wing is complaining about [Speaker] Boehner and [Majority Leader] Cantor. Schizophrenic base. We’re not what we thought we were.”
A younger member of the House spoke of what he has heard from the campaign trail that worries him about Romney. “For as smart as people say he is, he doesn’t come across as smart. He’s really smooth and polished, but when you see what he’s promoting, there’s not even a straw man, there’s a hollow man.”
We spoke of the recent controversy in Ohio, when Romney wobbled badly on the critical Gov. John Kasich initiative to limit union collective bargaining, Question No. 2. One day Romney said it was a local matter; the next day he declared himself “110 percent” for it, just before it was soundly defeated. The backstory, I was told, was that Romney, after ducking the issue, was sternly advised by potentates that if he didn’t support the party, he would suffer mass Buckeye desertions.
“It’s a little piece of evidence,” concluded my informant, “that he’s the same guy who's switched every position known to mankind. We just don’t know what the guy stands for.”
Republican professionals speak cautiously as they watch the slow, careful march of Mitt Romney to the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Romney is the result of the party’s failure on the Wall Street bailout,” opined one of the fervent anti-TARP votes from the fall of 2008. “The Wall Street bailout was a systemic failure. The political failure today matches the systemic failure of the TARP. Romney is out of the wing of the party that won the battle. There’s no candidate from the people who opposed the TARP. [Ron] Paul and [Michele] Bachmann are not viable. Romney is an establishment Republican. Romney never was a conservative. Conservatives are mad at Romney. But if you're accused of something that you are, of not being a conservative, it doesn’t bother you.”
I asked if the party thinks Romney can win without the loyalty of the conservatives.
“Romney wins, because the independents well know that there's concern what Obama will do if he has four more years without worrying about running again.”
The Western conservative judged Romney’s worth in terms of the election for Congress: “It comes down to a few states. If Romney is the nominee, Nevada is gone from the Democrats. Romney would be impossible except for Obama. No one thought Obama would be this bad. If anything, Obama will help us; he’s very unpopular [out here]. Tough decisions have to be made. No one says they can’t work with him [Romney].“ I asked if Speaker Boehner can work with Romney and received an answer to another question. “The speaker definitely doesn’t want Newt. All of the people who served with Newt, none of them will work with him.”
Another discouraged conservative opined, “From Main Street to Wall Street, by giving the pass on the Wall Street bailout, the party never was going to stop Romney. The party had disarmed itself of its most powerful weapon. Obama will run as a tribune of the underclass who can stop the Republicans of Wall Street. The right has never understood that you run in states, and the underclass votes in critical states. TARP was the end of the Goldwater Party. TARP was the Northeast Republicans reclaiming the party. Last year’s election was populist. The party couldn’t have stopped it if it wanted to.”
I asked if the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act weakens Romney with the GOP.
“If the Supremes uphold Obamacare, there’s only one way to fix it,” reported the most resolved observer of my informants. “Romney gets lots of help if the court rules it constitutional. The party understands Romney. The members think he's a moderate whom the more conservative can keep in line. They get to blame Romney for his failures. What’s the big deal here? Everyone knows the score.”