Romney and the Right-Wing Shakedown

Can mealy-mouthed Mitt reject the right’s stunningly long list of demands?

Steven Senne / AP Photos

The Washington Post ran a story over the weekend describing the Romney campaign’s efforts to advance the notion of Mitt’s inevitability and get the forces of the right on board the train. It contained a tantalizing and thought-provoking little paragraph that raised the question of what kinds of demands those on the hard right are going to make of Romney, should he become the nominee. There is also the related question of how far he might go to assuage them. Such is their mistrust, and such (so far) is his pliability, that it’s worth pondering the potentially unprecedented dance of demand and acquiescence that we might witness this fall.

The paragraph in question describes a recent conversation that Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, a big cheese in the evangelical universe, says he had with Romney advisers. The money quote: “Land said he recently told [Romney advisers] that Romney could win over recalcitrant conservatives by picking Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) as his vice-presidential running mate and previewing a few Cabinet selections: Santorum as attorney general, Gingrich as ambassador to the United Nations, and John Bolton as secretary of state.”

This hasn’t gotten much attention yet, but something tells me the general subject is going to, so I think it deserves more. Usually a candidate who represents one wing of a political party and wins the presidential nomination can buy off the other wing’s allegiance with a vice-presidential nod. Ronald Reagan took George H.W. Bush, Mike Dukakis tapped Lloyd Bentsen, John McCain named Sarah Palin. Other veep choices have deviated from this standard because sometimes nominees want to break the mold in interesting ways (Bill Clinton and Al Gore), but typically, the vice presidency has been used to settle that intra-party ideological account, and, usually—no, always—it has been considered sufficient payment. Everyone agrees at that point that the party is united.

But now we have a more, uh, self-confident right wing, and consequently we have a new and different calculus. Now, Rubio as vice-president is just the security deposit. Now, Romney has to walk much farther down that trail of tears. Look again at Land’s list. I couldn’t possibly begin to tell you which of these three would be the most alarming. Letting Rick Santorum populate the Justice Department solely with lawyers from the law schools of Ave Maria and Regent University and sue—oh golly, who would he sue?—drug-store chains that sell contraceptives is a pretty unsettling thought. Newt Gingrich as ambassador (read back those four words to yourself and savor their surreal quality) to the U.N. is a match made in hell. But Bolton to Foggy Bottom probably takes the cake. It’s the most important of the three jobs, with the most at stake, and the man is a lunatic.

These sound like suggestions Stephen Colbert would make, but I’m pretty sure Land wasn’t joking. And this, in turn, makes me think: Land doesn’t make such suggestions merely because he thinks Romney needs to earn the trust of the far right. He makes such suggestioms because he has a sense that Romney just might do it. That the righties can make this guy do anything they please.

Can they? Well, Romney is the only person who can answer that. But everything we’ve seen so far—from spending day after day disavowing his best achievement as governor and rushing around to call right-wing radio hosts to reassure them that he supports amendments designed to limit contraception—indicates that Romney will do pretty much anything the far right wishes.

So imagine that Land’s suggestion grows into a demand. Or if not this exact one, another very much like it—cabinet positions for Santorum and others, maybe Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann. And imagine that Romney acquiesces. What makes anyone think Land and his ideological compatriots will stop there? There is a difference between today’s right wing and all other past left and right wings, which is that this right wing is all raging id, never satisfied or becalmed, and able only to think in terms of making those who aren’t in the fraternity scrape before it, acknowledging its power. Imagine Sarah Palin for Homeland Security. Only then, when Romney appoints America’s least serious public person to arguably its most serious job, will the right’s thirst for bringing him to heel perhaps be slaked.

Conversely, imagine that Romney does not acquiesce. He’ll have polls, after all, and those polls will be telling him that putting Santorum and Gingrich and Bolton in those positions will be like rat poison to independents. What happens then, on Fox News and in the right-wing Twitterverse? They’ll be saying what they believe anyway: “Look, we’ve got a squish on our hands. Not one of us. How can he possibly think Bolton is not qualified to be the secretary of state? With a quisling like this on our side, we might as well leave the Muslim in there.”

It’s something to look out for and just another example of how the new right has changed the rules. Literally since the early days of the republic, when Thomas Jefferson chose George Clinton as his running mate—the vice presidency has been the means to bring intra-party factions together. But we now have a faction that doesn’t want comity, it wants domination. And it probably will have a nominee who’ll let it have its way.