David S. Bernstein
November 21, 2006
To understand why Mitt Romney’s dream of capturing the Republican presidential nomination is not far-fetched, you first have to understand what Rudy Giuliani is doing–or rather, not doing. You may have heard that by establishing an “exploratory” presidential committee last week, Giuliani took a major step toward running.
But some analysts and Republican insiders doubt that Giuliani is really planning to run for president. He’s just not that stupid: he does not imagine that Republican primaries can be won by a pro-choice, pro-gun-control New Yorker who moved in with a gay couple when his wife kicked him out of the mayor’s residence for having an extra-marital affair.
Giuliani’s exploratory committee likely has a more short-term, pragmatic purpose: replacing his Solutions America political-action committee as the vehicle that pays him and his staff to travel around the country, speaking and raising money for himself and others. And, to maintain his A-list national profile.
The Giuliani diversion gives the impression that Romney is running a very distant third behind Rudy and Arizona senator John McCain. Take Giuliani out of the equation, and that leaves McCain apparently home-free.
Not so fast. “Movement conservatives”–the type who gather at Grover Norquist’s famous weekly breakfast meetings at Americans for Tax Reform headquarters on L Street in Washington–despise John McCain. Loathe him. Would do anything to stop him.
One GOP operative was at one of those Norquist gatherings when the talk turned to ’08 presidential politics. “To a person, they hate McCain,” he says.
So far, no single candidate has emerged to lead the anti-McCain consensus–but Romney could easily end up the last one standing.
“There are three or four Republicans–and four is being generous–one of whom will be the nominee, and Romney is one of them,” Norquist says. “The non-McCain vote right now goes to Romney.”
To woo those conservatives, Romney has staked out a position in the GOP presidential field akin to that of George W. Bush, without the taint of Washington. He supports the Iraq war as a necessary part of the war on Islamist-fueled terror. He has embraced social conservative causes by shifting to a strict pro-life position, denouncing stem-cell research, and, of course, bashing same-sex marriage. And Romney is on even steadier ground with what you might call the corporate wing of the Republican Party, which is looking for a pro-business, small-government, anti-regulation, low-tax candidate.
“Romney can speak two languages–he can speak to the religious conservatives and to the corporate board members,” says Ray LaRaja, a political-science professor at UMass Amherst.
That all looks good on paper, but not everybody’s buying it. “Nobody in the party movement establishment thinks of him as a conservative,” says David Carney, a political consultant with Norway Hill Associates in Hancock, New Hampshire, and former political director for George H.W. Bush. “You can’t be a conservative and take an inconsistent position on abortion.”
As for his economics positioning, Romney earned a mere “C” grade from the Cato Institute in its new ratings of governors’ fiscal conservatism. The report called Romney’s no-new-taxes claim “mostly a myth,” and warned of “massive costs to taxpayers that his universal health care plan will inflict.” Further, Romney’s limited government experience gives conservatives little to judge him by, and he’s never been the kind of intellectual heavyweight who builds a reputation by penning articles for right-wing think tanks.
As a result, he has tried to prove himself by association–getting people known to movement insiders to sign on with his political-action committee, Commonwealth PAC. Names like Barbara Comstock mean little to the average voter, but they matter to right-wing insiders. Romney also has two top former aides of Jeb Bush, as well as George W. Bush’s former top domestic speechwriter on his payroll. And many other solid conservatives populate his “steering committees” in early-voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
“He and McCain have the strongest group of supporters,” says Nancy Dwight, former executive director of the Republican National Congressional Committee and a member of Romney’s New Hampshire and national steering committees.
Romney is also eagerly wooing the “Pioneers” and “Rangers” who raised money in bulk for Bush–to prove his fundraising ability, but also to demonstrate his conservative appeal. His successes include Robert Congel in New York, Dwight Decker and Kenneth Satterlee in California, Lewis Eisenberg in New Jersey, Sam Fox in Missouri, Chris Jenny in Massachusetts, David Johnson in Michigan, Stanley Phillips in North Carolina, and Malcolm Pray in Connecticut, all of whom contributed to Commonwealth PAC.
All these moves are intended to create the impression that Romney is the viable conservative in the race. Two years ago, he was one of a large crowd angling for that role; but the ranks have been thinning rapidly.
National anti-Bush sentiment has long since ruled out a serious run by anyone associated with the current administration, and voters have made clear their distaste for Republicans in the House of Representatives. Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, a favorite of many conservatives–Karl Rove once said Frist’s was the only ’08 campaign he’d consider working for–has seen his stock drop precipitously, particularly after leading the charge on the Terri Schiavo fiasco. Two other senators popular on the right, George Allen and Rick Santorum, were defeated for re-election and are now out of the picture.
Norquist says that, since the November 9 election, he has been getting e-mails from fellow conservatives who had previously supported George Allen for president. “They are now saying, ‘I’m with Mitt Romney,’ or ‘I’ve just met with Romney and I’m impressed,’ ” says Norquist.
There are still plenty of ’08 hopefuls left, and Republicans of different stripes are split or undecided among them. If these conservatives remain divided, McCain will coast to victory. So the question is, how badly do conservatives want to stop McCain?
McCain’s frequent television appearances give the average viewer a distorted view of his relationship to the Republican Party. In fact, his well-cultivated image, so appealing to independent voters in 2000, has earned him the ire of movement conservatives.
“I find John McCain completely unacceptable,” says Peter Ferrara, senior policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Innovation, a Washington-based small-government think tank.
“He’s completely unfit to serve as president,” says David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth, a powerful right-wing organization.
This hatred dates to McCain’s signature campaign-finance-reform legislation, co-sponsored with liberal senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, which severely limited the large-sum individual and corporate contributions that had previously fueled Republican campaigns.
But that’s not their only problem with the Arizona senator. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts (although he later voted for making them permanent). He has supported gun-control legislation. He led the “Gang of 14” senators in preventing the so-called nuclear option, a change in procedure that would have allowed Republicans to confirm conservative judges over Democratic opposition. He voted for federal spending on stem-cell research, and opposes a federal ban on gay marriage. He is one of the most pro-environment Republicans on Capital Hill, supporting the Kyoto Treaty and even co-authoring a failed bill to limit carbon-dioxide emissions. And, in a move tailor-made for attack ads, he co-authored the “amnesty-by-another-name” immigration-reform legislation–with Ted Kennedy, no less–that dominated right-wing talk radio much of the year.
But McCain’s true nemesis is Norquist himself, who led the effort, at the behest of Karl Rove, to crush the Arizonan’s 2000 aspirations. Since then, Norquist has regularly insulted McCain in the press, and McCain has fired right back.
There were rumors of appeasement in the spring, after McCain, who chaired last year’s Senate hearings on the Jack Abramoff scandal, seemed to go easy on Norquist when he was called to testify. But by summer, the animosity was back, with Norquist blasting away and a McCain aide telling the Washington Post: “Obviously Grover is not well. It would be cruel of us to respond in kind.”
Two months ago, McCain was again assailed by the right–including in the New Hampshire Union Leader–for disagreeing with Bush on the treatment of suspected terrorists. Romney jumped at the opening, and was quoted in a New York Times article emphasizing his policy differences with McCain: “We have different views on McCain-Feingold, differing views on immigration policy, differing views on the interrogation of terrorists.”
But do the voters care?
Some question the power of Republican insiders to swing the nomination away from McCain. In the wake of the ’06 election, Carney suggests, electability clearly now requires more than simply energizing the party’s conservative base. So, whereas in 2000 Republicans applied strict litmus tests to presidential candidates, this time around “there’s going to be a lot more leeway given to the candidate who can beat Hillary,” Carney says. And polls say that the best bet to beat Senator Clinton, if she becomes the Democratic nominee, is John McCain.
“Even conservative Republicans are looking for somebody more moderate, somebody who has a chance at winning,” agrees J. Christopher Williams, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. That group held a straw poll at its annual dinner last week, with Romney finishing a strong third, but McCain and Giuliani combined to take nearly two-thirds of the Republican votes.
To Carney, only Washington insiders care so deeply about “process issues” like campaign-finance reform. McCain is solid on issues important to conservative activists around the country, he says.
But, of course, McCain’s enemies needn’t attack him on those arcane issues; they can Swift Boat him on whatever they think will work: illegal immigration, McCain’s involvement in the old “Keating 5” scandal, even his admitted marital infidelities.
That’s why the most noteworthy contribution Mitt Romney’s Commonwealth PAC has received so far may be the relatively modest $5750 given by Bob Perry on November 3. Why? Perry, a mega-successful home builder in Houston, is the man who spent $4.5 million funding the Swift Boat Veterans’ attacks on John Kerry in 2004. This year, Perry spent another $6.5 million on the midterm elections–including half a million, which he gave to the Romney-chaired Republican Governors Association. Perry has never given to McCain’s Straight Talk America PAC.
Romney will be playing hardball; at least, that’s the message some are taking from last week’s news that top-tier Republican consultant Alex Castellanos has signed on as a Romney advisor, and will likely be chief media strategist for Romney’s presidential campaign.
Castellanos is considered perhaps the most aggressive (read: amoral) ad-maker in the business. Among his more notorious spots is one featuring a white man crumpling up a job-rejection letter, while the voice-over explains that, because of affirmative action, the job had gone to a less-qualified minority. Castellanos should have a blast with McCain’s immigration bill.
Romney’s got a long way to go: he’s in the single digits in most polls, and conservative support is still widely split. Ferrara, for instance, is holding out for a Newt Gingrich candidacy, while Keating hopes South Carolina governor Mark Sanford will run. Romney needs to convince folks like them that he is the Anyone-But-McCain candidate.
Last Sunday on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, McCain tried gamely to walk the ideological tightrope on gay rights, abortion, tax cuts, and campaign finance. But over on Fox News Sunday, conservatives got an ’08 assessment from their intellectual guru, Newt Gingrich. “There is a yearning for a clearer voice of conservatism,” Gingrich said, after listing his problems with McCain. “And I think that Mitt Romney has an opportunity to fill that.”