How Lucky Is Mitt Romney?

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"Go to sleep, Rick Perry. Go to sleeeep ... "Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

I have spent more than a year predicting the electoral demise of Mitt Romney. Here is a Mormon, once fervently pro-choice candidate running to lead an electorate whipped into a frenzied belief that Barack Obama’s health-care plan poses the most dire threat to liberty in American history, having imposed virtually the same plan in Massachusetts himself. Indeed, the economist who designed Romneycare also designed the Affordable Care Act. Romney has tried to elide the problem by citing a state-federal distinction that nobody actually cares about in practice, but even that turns out to be false, as Romney once supported the hated individual mandate at the federal level.

And yet here he is, poised to assume the Republican nomination as Rick Perry tries to stave off a total implosion. It is as if the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination was about to fall into the hands of Paul Wolfowitz. What happened?

The search for a viable alternative to Mitt Romney has been a long and oddly futile process. The requirements are not especially strict: one must be a Republican politician in good standing, be interested in becoming president, never have proposed national health care or tax increases, and be able to deliver teed-up scripted attacks on Romney. The combination turns out to be surprisingly difficult to put together.

One of the handy rules of politics is that any politician who claims to not seek an available promotion due to family interests is lying. Political families are for photo ops, not for consultation. And yet a series of mainstream Republican contenders have all, in apparent sincerity, declined to run due to their family’s desires: John Thune, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan. Jeb Bush begged off, sensibly, due to the branding problems entailed by his unfortunate last name and close blood relations.

Tim Pawlenty appeared to be the acceptable conservative non-Romney. He signaled a promising line of attack by coining a term “Obamneycare” to describe the undeniable similarities between Romney’s signature achievement and Obama’s hated, socialist freedom-killer. But then, in his first debate with Romney, Pawlenty weirdly refused to follow through. As Romney stood nearby with a cat-who-ate-the-canary smile, Pawlenty stumbled through an evasive soliloquy in which he could not come near a point. The disastrous moment sent his campaign into a death spiral, from which it never recovered.

And now, Rick Perry. This is a man who was put on Earth to defeat Mitt Romney. He is the walking embodiment of the Republican id. His disembowelment of Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the 2010 Texas gubernatorial primary is the blueprint for attacking a favored Republican from the right. Simply substitute Romney for Hutchinson and “Romneycare” for “bailout” and the plan could not be more promising. And yet Perry, like Pawlenty before him, has found himself unable to deliver the line. In Thursday night’s debate, with a devastating attack teed, up, he began stammering painfully, looking as though he were about to fall asleep. You have to wonder if Romney is protected by some invisible force-field, which incapacitates the brain of any foe who approaches him.

Romney remains wildly vulnerable. Perhaps the latest non-Romney savior Chris Christie will jump into the race. Or perhaps Perry can learn to memorize his cue cards (or take dramatic action to shore up his anti-illegal immigration bona fides). Failing that, we may see a man walk into the nomination of a party whose electorate is dying to vote against him, simply because nobody else could stand in his path without keeling over.