Why Conservatives Are So Antsy About Mitt

At Salon, Steve Kornacki mulls over one of the odder features of this presidential contest: the constant sniping and fretting among Republicans towards Mitt Romney’s campaign. Steve, in fact, thinks Mitt is in danger of becoming one of those major-party nominees–the most recent being Bob Dole–to be semi-abandoned by the movers and shakers in his party, who shift their money and attention to down-ballot contests.

[A]s the frustration and panic of conservative opinion leaders grows, the Romney campaign has an extra incentive to try to look like a winner. Over the next few weeks, Republican campaign committees, outside money groups, fund-raisers, and down-ballot candidates will make bottom-line judgments about Romney’s standing that will affect how they allocate their money and how they treat Romney in their messaging.

The risks for Romney are two-fold. One is the simple appearance problem. It’s one thing for the other party to claim that a presidential candidate is flailing and running a poor campaign; that’s standard fare. It’s different, and more problematic, when the media and political world joins in this conclusion – something that Romney has been dealing with for the past few weeks. And it’s even worse when the candidate’s own party joins the chorus, as is also the case for Romney now.

Steve attributes the bad feelings towards Romney to the belief that he ought to be doing a lot better given current economic conditions. In other words, Mitt hasn’t successfully executed the obvious “economic referendum on the president” strategy. That may be true for some GOP critics, but as regular readers know, I think something quite different is going on: a sizable segment of the conservative commentariat is determined to make this not a referendum on the economy–which they view as little more than a symptom of a deeper and more fundamental national loss of direction–but a referendum on the last half-century or so of American public policy and culture.

And why wouldn’t they feel this way? How would you want your presidential candidate to campaign If you thought (a) America’s current fiscal and economic problems are the natural and inevitable product of the New Deal and Great Society legacy, whose costs and impositions on the private sector have been disguised and kicked down the road for decades; (b) American society has descended into semi-barbarism, with widespread infanticide, irresponsibility and moral relativism rapidly eroding the foundations of every successful country in history; and (c) that Barack Obama is the living embodiment of a sinister coalition of elites and helots consciously if deceptively determined to transform the United States into a place past generations and today’s seniors would not recognize? Would you want your candidate to make his entire pitch “are you better off than you were four years ago”? Hell’s no!

So long as Romney looked like a better than even bet to win in November, conservatives were willing to let him deceptively campaign as a bland technocrat with the power to convince wealthy investors and “job-creators” that he’d make their bottom-lines the be-all and end-all of his presidency, getting the economy out of its doldrums and administering some tough-love to bureaucrats and welfare beneficiaries–you know, a nice, safe bracing tonic of the sort that the occasional conservative government is supposed to be good at providing. But if he’s not going to be a slam dunk, conservatives want him to run their kind of campaign, producing their kind of mandate, which is all the more essential because they don’t trust Romney in office as far as they can throw him.

I suspect it’s this highly contingent commitment to the kind of campaign Team Mitt is running that is at the bottom of the highly contingent conservative commitment to the candidacy itself. And I also suspect the shakiness of the entire GOP coalition this year–ironic given the endless talk of Democratic discouragement and division earlier in the cycle–that is responsible for the frantic spinning of many Republican writers and talking heads who fear the wheels will fall off if victory looks doubtful.

Romney hasn’t yet encountered the kind of angry “do this, don’t do that” crowds that afflicted John McCain in October of 2008. But he’s probably just a couple a weeks away from that if his poll numbers deteriorate much more, and/or if economic conditions continue to slowly brighten, making the “referendum” campaign that much less persuasive.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.