Home To Roost

As a useful corrective to the Beltway tendency to over-attribute political trends to the last two or three things that have happened, but without falling prey to the zombie-eyed indifference to actual politics of the social science Fundamentalists, Ron Browstein’s latest column for National Journal traces Mitt Romney’s struggles to specific strategic decisions he made during the primaries:

Of all Romney’s primary-season decisions, the most damaging was his choice to repel the challenges from Perry and Gingrich by attacking them from the right—and using immigration as his cudgel. That process led Romney to embrace a succession of edgy, conservative positions anathema to many Hispanics, including denouncing Texas for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants; praising Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law; and, above all, promising to make life so difficult for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants that they would “self-deport….”

But that’s not all. Having limited his potential vote among Hispanics, Romney also hemmed himself in among certain categories of white voters:

Romney’s inability to dent Obama’s support among Hispanics (or other minorities) means the GOP nominee probably can’t win without attracting at least 61 percent of white voters. Yet a second early decision has greatly compounded that challenge. Through the primaries, Romney embraced an unreservedly conservative social agenda (such as defunding Planned Parenthood and allowing employers to deny contraception coverage in health insurance plans), especially after Santorum emerged as his principal rival. That positioning helps explain why polls consistently show Obama drawing a majority of college-educated white women—not only the most socially liberal sector of the white electorate but also the fastest-growing. If Obama can hold a majority of those women and match his 80 percent with all minorities in 2008, Romney would have to carry two-thirds of all other whites to win—as much as Ronald Reagan won among those remaining voters in his 1984 landslide.

Brownstein also notes that Romney endorsed a 20% high-end tax cut as he was trying to nail down the nomination, and wrongly concluded that his ability to survive attacks on his record at Bain Capital among sympathetic primary voters inoculated him on that issue. All in all, Romney won the nomination in a way that made a general election victory far more difficult than it might have been.

Romney’s decisions during the primaries also reflected a conspicuous lack of confidence that he could impose his will on his party. Instead, he serially accommodated himself to the cresting demands of a GOP base that emerged from the 2010 election excessively confident that the country was ready for the most conservative agenda since at least Reagan in 1980. If Obama wins a second term despite all his vulnerabilities, that ideological hubris will loom larger than any of Romney’s flubs and stumbles now.

Regular readers know this is pretty close to my take for many months now: the big story of the 2012 cycle is the radical lurch of the GOP led by an excited activist “base” convinced it’s within striking distance of reversing much of the progressive policy legacy of the last century. It’s wound up with a presidential nominee it doesn’t like or trust, so it has made and even now continues to make demands on him that make a general election appeal exceptionally difficult. Self-constrained ideologically while possessing zero moral compunctions, the Romney campaign is relying as always on vast sums of money backing ever-more-violent and heavily-targeted assaults on his opponent.

The way I’ve been putting it lately is that Mitt Romney’s sick relationship with his own party is dominating a contest that was supposed to (from a Republican point of view) be “about” Obama and the economy. Romney can still slither his way through the minefield he’s created for himself, but Brownstein’s right, he can’t undo his “original sins” from the primaries.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.