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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.

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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Paul - I agree at least somewhat. The GOP is extremely difficult for any candidate to navigate to the nomination.I'm not certain you're right, though, about the Tea Party's influence. During the primary season, Republican candidates with alleged Tea Party appeal were the first ones eliminated, and none of the two or three Republican candidates who lasted through the spring were particularly Tea Party favorites. The only person involved in this campaign with true Tea Party cred was Paul Ryan, whose impact, in retrospect, probably was more negative than positive for the Romney campaign.FWIW, my own take is that a mediocre politician with a competence message went up against an outstanding politician with an inspirational message and got his clock cleaned. Whatever Obama's warts as a President, he is one helluva candidate. Virtually everything he managed to get done in his first term set up this second run.This retrospective on the campaign tells the story, in my opinion. Headline: "21 Reasons for Obama's Victory and Romney's Defeat."

Sorry, one more thought: my view is that the internal logic of the Republican Party will reinforce the importance of the Tea Party over the next couple of years. It seems to have the most inspirational message, and also the closest thing to a ground game. I expect that this will play out as the so-called Fiscal Cliff races toward us.Romney was the Republican Establishment candidate. His crash-and-burn may diminish the influence of that wing within the party.

JP: That was a thought I woke up with this morning: the Tea Party will prevail in the Republican Party. I also wonder how much that will be reenforced by the racial/ethnic divide we could see last night in the arenas where Obama and Romney supporters gathered. The mixed image of the one was in stark contrast to the white image of the other.

Jim,The Tea Party cost the GOP a couple of Senate seats. Exit polls show that Lugar, the incumbent, would have won in Indiana if the Tea Party hadn't knocked him out in the primaries. And only a wingnut like Akin could have lost to Claire McCaskill in Missouri.

Margaret - I also was struck by the whiteness of the background crowds in all of the news clips of Romney's and Ryan's campaign appearances. The GOP has a lot of work to do to broaden its outreach. This is not the Tea Party's forte, nor really a particular area of interest for the Tea Party. The GOP can't let itself turn into the Tea Party. There is no important coalition in the GOP right now that has built bridges to people of color. If we didn't know it already, we learned last night that white men by themselves aren't a winning coalition.

Matthew - I agree that the Tea Party's Senate track record, now over a couple of election cycles, is mixed at best. In the particular cases you cite, I agree that the Tea Party put those candidates into the party nomination, but arguably it wasn't Tea Party rhetoric but culture-war flubs that doomed their candidacies.

The problem with this sort of analysis (and especially the sort of triumphalist goofiness from the EJ Dionnes of the world) is that it assumes that most people are politically informed in the first place. Howard Stern (of all people) recently had fun asking people on the street if they like Obama's pick of Paul Ryan as Vice-President, etc. In 2007, 31% of American adults couldn't name Dick Cheney as the Vice-President, this after he was the most powerful and famous Vice-President in living memory. Nor is it clear that people are all that aware of what Obama has done: (Obama supporters disliked his far-reaching policies on assassinating suspected terrorists, spying on Americans, etc., when those positions were attributed to Romney).Nor were average Romney voters all that well-informed either.

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