The Right’s Big Miscalculation

E.J. Dionne is getting a lot of attention for a provocative column suggesting that whatever happens on November 6, the Right has lost this election cycle because its presidential champion has publicly discarded any association with it. Here’s the basic argument:

Almost all of the analysis of Mr. Romney’s highly public burning of the right’s catechism focuses on such tactical issues as whether his betrayal of principle will help him win over middle-of-the-road women and carry Ohio. What should engage us more is that a movement that won the 2010 elections with a bang is trying to triumph just two years later on the basis of a whimper.

That’s true, but I have two reservations about E.J.’s argument. One is that Mitt may have “burned the catechism” in terms of rhetoric and positioning, but he hasn’t changed more than a few of the specific policies he embraced to make himself acceptable to conservatives during the primaries. So long as he’s still on record saying he’s ready to sign a reconciliation bill implementing the Ryan Budget, I don’t really care whether he’s now opposing cuts to Pell Grants.

And the second is that I don’t think conservative activists much care whether they get their way via stealth as opposed to a grand national repudiation of the New Deal and the Great Society. After all, the very core of today’s conservatives–the so-called “constitutional conservatives”–don’t much believe in democracy to begin with, unless it happens to be useful at some particular point in restoring the Eternal Verities that must be permanently enforced through public policy.

More to the immediate point, it’s just too late in the election cycle for conservatives to object to Mitt’s exhibits of “moderation,” even if it drives them nuts.

But there is one front on which the Right most definitely seems to be in the process of failing this cycle, and which is probably more important to their ideological project than how Mitt Romney’s represents himself at any particular moment: the Senate.

The whole grand strategy for conservatives this cycle was to get a Republican Congress and a president pliable enough to agree to sign the aforementioned reconciliation bill implementing the Ryan Budget (not to mention make and get confirmed the fateful fifth vote on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade). No, Romney wasn’t their dream candidate, but he made the requisite promises not to stand in the way of a Republican Congress’ will, as Grover Norquist explained earlier this year. And they didn’t even need to trust him, because the real power would be at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

I honestly don’t think it occurred to anyone in either party until fairly recently that there was a decent chance Republicans could fall short in the Senate even if Mitt Romney won the presidency. The landscape, after all, was so incredibly in their favor, with only 10 of 33 seats to protect and seven Democrats retiring, two of them in deep red states. But then Snowe retired and then Lugar lost his primary and then Akin imploded and then GOP candidates underperformed in Florida and North Dakota and New Mexico and Arizona and Hawaii, and now the Mourdock time bomb has gone off, and it’s just a friggin’ fiasco!

I’m sure in retrospect conservatives are wishing they had spent just a little less time indulging their unglued hatred of Obama and a little more time shoring up their Senate lineup. Who knows, if they’d left Lugar alone or tilted the playing field a bit in Missouri to John Brunner or Sarah Steelman or been nicer to Olympia Snowe or figured out Connie Mack was a poor candidate–maybe they’d be celebrating Mitt Romney’s relatively strong late showing and debating whether their reconciliation bill ought to be even more vicious than originally designed. Now it looks like they’ve got a problem no matter what happens at the top of the ticket.

Maybe I’m wrong and they’ll win the Senate after all, or maybe they’ll find a way to bribe or threaten a Democratic Senator into submission or at least into a half-a-loaf compromise. And perhaps Obama will win, making control of the Senate less critical. But for my money, the biggest defeat the Right has already suffered (other than the failure to recruit and/or unite behind a presidential candidate less weaselly than Romney) was to take a Senate victory for granted. They’ve got no one but themselves to blame for that mistake.

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.