Nowhere Man

It’s probably worth remembering as Republicans agonize over the Romney campaign and its shortcomings that the vast majority of them would never have chosen him out of a lineup as their nominee to begin with. Jon Chait summarizes the “news from nowhere” origins of Mitt ’12:

[W]hose idea was it to nominate Romney? The basic answer is: nobody’s. It’s true that Romney managed to persuade many conservative activists to support him during, and in the immediate aftermath of, his 2008 campaign. But by 2010, conservatives had moved farther right and left Romney behind. It’s not as if the Establishment were pining away for him, either. Most mainstream Republicans spent the cycle pining away for another candidate to jump into the race.

The real split during the primary occurred between conservatives who reluctantly fell behind Romney because they had no alternative (which is to say, the alternatives were such characters as Michele Bachmann, comatose Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum) and those who were willing to support one or all of those characters rather than Romney. Nobody, except Jennifer Rubin and Matt Drudge, actually displayed any real enthusiasm for the man. He won by default. And yes, he is turning out to be a below-average candidate, but almost surely superior to any of the alternatives who actually ran against him, and perhaps Republicans should recognize that the fundamentals made Obama at least a moderate favorite to win all along.

I’d add a couple of thoughts to Jon’s reminder. First, as you may recall, in all the early general election polling a “generic Republican” (i.e., an unnamed nominee) ran ahead of the entire field consistently. Indeed, it was often said that “generic Republican” was what Mitt was trying to sound like. And second, what was left of the “moderate wing” of the Republican Party (still a significant share of the GOP voter base outside the South, although it’s virtually unrepresented among elected officials these days) generally supported Romney because of his fading “moderate” bona fides, and/or because they figured he didn’t mean all those promises he was making to movement conservatives on the campaign trail. It’s not a particularly good thing if your most intense supporters either don’t like you (violently anti-Obama Republicans) or hope you are lying (Republican “moderates”).

It is true, of course, that there is one category of voter who cares about Mitt Romney’s personal success, as opposed to supporting him strictly because of party, and that’s LDS folk, for whom he is obviously a historic figure. But that’s about it.

One thing I’ve said before that I doubt anyone will contradict is that if Mitt Romney loses, he will vanish from Republican politics without a trace. He has no public office to fall back on, no real geographical base, and no personal following (again, outside the LDS flock). Having contrived a presidential candidacy out of familiarity, money and comparative advantage over an incredibly weak field, this is the closest he will ever get to the brass ring. As always, that makes me wonder what he might resort to in the stretch run.

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.