How Romney lost his balance
During the 2010 congressional campaign, I explored a race in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to see why the Democrats were headed for a big defeat in midterm elections. The Democratic incumbent had the disadvantage of being trailed by a few dozen stirred up Tea Party members who created a ruckus whenever he held a public event. They were passionate, vocal and hard-working. They knew the issues and the voting records of local politicians. The Republican challenger had the benefit of a core group of eager helpers.
But his Tea Party backers made clear that to keep their support, he was expected to support their agenda, point for point. “Every Republican candidate in this country is looking for support from the Tea Party movement and we are making them jump through the hoops to get it,” their Web site boasted.
The Tea Party may have made itself very helpful for Republicans seeking congressional or state legislative offices, but its agenda is too extreme for a candidate seeking to win a statewide victory in all but the reddest states. That’s why, in my view, Mitt Romney lost an election that was his to win. Contorting himself to fit through the Tea Party’s hoops, he lost his balance and never really regained his footing.
Romney was in many ways an attractive candidate, with considerable achievements as governor of Massachusetts and a can-do attitude for anything involving dollars and cents. The Obama campaign went negative on him very quickly – a sure sign that it recognized him as a formidable opponent.
In the end, no diligent, fair-minded search of the evidence could discern who Romney really was. Was he the moderate, compassionate candidate who emerged with the Oct. 3 debate? Was he the man captured on video trashing the 47 percent? Did he have a share-the-pain plan for the economy that he’d reveal after the election? He never really succeeded in defining himself, mainly because he had to go so far right to please Tea Party-type Republicans. Faced with the Tea Party’s harsh views on immigration, he took positions that alienated Latino Catholics, who became an important part of Obama’s winning coalition.
The initial commentary I heard on election night suggested that Republicans would now move toward a moderate candidate for the next presidential election. And, yes, they said they must do a better job of courting Latino voters. I wouldn’t bet on it. The Tea Party has been quite successful in making Republican elected officials at the local level jump through its hoops; its influence within the Republican Party has been institutionalized at the grassroots.
The problem with insisting that candidates jump through every hoop is that a presidential aspirant must prove to be more the ringmaster of the circus than one of its acts.