Back in 2008, Barack Obama boasted the support of more than 40 prominent Republicans and conservatives, including Colin Powell, Bush press secretary Scott McClellan, and Reagan solicitor general Charles Fried. These “ObamaCons” were offered as a barometer of Obama’s crossover appeal, evidence of his ability to unite the nation. And surprisingly, Obama won 20 percent of conservatives that fall.
But four years later, how many of these ObamaCons regret their decision to back the inspiring but untested Obama? In the absence of someone as polarizing as Sarah Palin on the GOP ticket, are they planning on returning to their roots as Republicans with Mitt Romney? Or are they sticking with President Obama—and if so, why?
I reached out to the 2008 ObamaCons to get their take on this year’s post-Hope-and-Change race. The responses offered a portrait of a president retaining some, but far from all, of his center-right support, conclusions driven as much by disaffection from the continued rightward march of the Republican Party and the Romney campaign as any overriding love for Obama. The undecideds (or uninspireds) among this group almost outnumber the Obama stalwarts. Romney, strikingly, has failed to convince many of them to return to the fold, at least so far.
Fried, now a Harvard Law professor, was one of the most prominent defectors from the conservative cause to Obama. Four years later, he remains defiantly pro-Obama.
“Having abandoned John McCain—a decent and independent-minded man—when he picked Sarah Palin, I most certainly could not support Governor Romney, who has been pandering to the extreme wing of my party from the start of his campaign for the nomination,” Fried wrote in an email. “Napoleon said that the man who will say anything will do anything.”
Wick Allison, former publisher of National Review under William F. Buckley and current publisher of The American Conservative, also reaffirms his Obama decision, albeit in anguished lukewarm tones. “I will probably vote for Obama, unless I have a Gary Johnson–inspiration in the voting booth. (My vote in Texas is wasted anyway.),” Allison wrote in an email. “Romney is the opposite of conservative, with a plan that is fiscally reckless and a foreign policy that is unnecessarily militant. Obama has done about the best that could have been done, considering the united GOP opposition in Congress. My questions about Obamacare and my disappointment that we are not already out of Afghanistan are not enough to make me embrace a candidacy that even George W. Bush would have been repelled by—and, having had time to reflect on his own record, perhaps is.”
One of the most contentious ObamaCon arguments was offered by Douglas Kmiec, also a veteran of Reagan’s Office of Legal Counsel and a law professor at conservative Pepperdine University. Kmiec, who served as ambassador to Malta during the first two years of the Obama administration, tried to square his Obama endorsement with his devout Catholic beliefs and remains an unrepentant ObamaCon, even as Catholic leaders have proclaimed the president’s “war on religion.”
“I am strongly in the president’s camp, even as his opposition has been doing its darnedest to overstate a few concerns about the usual subjects,” Kmiec wrote in an email. “Having served in Europe for the president, I know the very positive effect he has had on international relationships. His patience, discernment, and intelligence are much admired. Domestically, the president was handed the worst possible economic hand, and largely, though of course not perfectly, he has met the economic challenge … This is supposed to be Mr. Romney’s area of strength, but so far, his ideas are either indecipherable or a rather lame trickle-down do-over.”
“Yes, he could have handled the HHS contraceptive issue in a more accommodating and sensitive way to the formal teaching of my church, and he was again given some very poor advice on the scope of religious exemption that should have been provided an institution like his honorary alma mater, Notre Dame,” Kmiec added. “Obviously, there is much to do in terms of tax reform and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but because that is so that is another basis for a second term.”
These surprising statements of continued conservative support echoed those sent by another half-dozen ObamaCons. (Another half dozen have died in the intervening four years, making them definitively unavailable for comment.)
An almost equal number of respondents said they were still undecided and/or uninspired in the 2012 race. Chief among these was the son of conservative patron saint William F. Buckley, Christopher Buckley, whose declaration in The Daily Beast that he was supporting Obama led to his separation from the magazine his father founded.
“I’m not sure which lever I’m going to pull this time around, frankly,” Buckley said. “To paraphrase Mr. Obama the last time around, I think it’s time for change we can believe in. The only person on either side who seems actually to stand for something other than fatuous, bumper-sticker rhetoric, is Mr. Ryan. But I agree with David Brooks that Ryan fatally blew it by voting against the Bowles-Simpson commission. That said, the person who bears most responsibility for blowing the hard work of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson—there’s a team I would vote for any day—must go to Obama, and I think history is going to hold him to account for that. In the end, he’s turned out to be just another pol.”
Bush press secretary Scott McClellan, perhaps mindful of the blowback he received from former colleagues in 2008, said in an email that he was not planning to make a public announcement of his support this time. Likewise, Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of Ike, said she was waiting for the conventions to be completed before making a final decision. Talk radio host Michael Smerconish said he would announce his decision after Labor Day but offered that he had recently re-read his initial op-ed in favor of Obama and saw little to regret the sentiments four years later. Colin Powell’s office declined to comment on the election “at this time,” though the former secretary of state offered a gently critical assessment of Obama a year ago, expressing the disappointment of many independent voters.
Surprisingly, the only ObamaCon from 2008 I could find who is explicitly supporting Romney is former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who had endorsed his Bay State successor Romney in the ’08 primary and then switched his support to Obama in the general election. Weld was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Romney campaign this time around, playing prominent surrogate roles in New Hampshire. “I supported Governor Romney in 2008 until he withdrew from the Republican contest,” Weld wrote in an email. “I’m supporting Governor Romney this time because I think his experience makes him best equipped to stimulate economic growth and job creation, which I see as our No. 1 issue.”
So what does the state of the ObamaCons in 2012 mean for Team Obama? While the president has experienced a significant erosion of cross-party support, it seems that a surprising number of prominent ObamaCons are still planning on pulling the lever for the president.
Their mindset reflects Obama’s overall edge with centrist swing voters, even if he is benefiting primarily from comparison to Romney and the rightward lurch of Republicans in Congress. But unquestionably enthusiasm has dimmed; uninspired indecision has replaced hope of change.
The resilience of the ObamaCons and Romney’s failure to win them over in a revived center-right Republican coalition indicates how much, for the centrist swing voters who ultimately will decide the next president, this race is still in play. Even in this hyperpartisan polarized era, the desire for a chief executive who can be a uniter, not a divider, continues, unfulfilled.