Last night, I watched the debate and immediately concluded, contrary to nearly everybody else, that Rick Perry did himself more long-term good. Upon reflection, I think everybody else has a point. I’ve thought for years that it would take a miracle for Mitt Romney to win the Republican nomination. But, for the first time, I can see how Romney can overcome his weaknesses.
Romney’s flaws as a primary candidate are numerous, but the two most serious are his legacy of supporting health-care reform and other moderate stances, and his refined temperament, which puts him far out of step with his party’s mood. But it’s important to understand the precise nature of that mood, and I’m beginning to think that Romney does.
Three moments during the last two debates captured the mentality of the Republican base. The first came in the previous debate, when some crowd members shouted that an uninsured man with a fatal illness should be allowed to die. Another occurred when a gay soldier serving in Iraq appeared on the video board to ask if he could be allowed to continue serving and was booed.
These expressions clearly reflect the straightforward policy implications of conservative principles. At the same time, I don’t think they ought to be taken purely at face value. I believe few conservative Republicans feel visceral hostility toward sick, uninsured people or gay soldiers. Rather, their booing is an expression of tribal partisan solidarity. These people are presenting challenges to the Republican dogma — living, breathing examples of the failures of their stance. They represent a challenge to the tribe, and the crowd is booing them for this, but not necessarily thinking through the substantive merits of their position.
This is essentially the way Romney is treating the conservative mood. Yes, conservatives have developed a series of policy stances — say, that subsidizing and regulating private health insurance is the greatest threat to freedom in American history. Rather than treat this as a principled view, Romney simply treats it as an atavistic expression of hostility toward Obama. He defends his Massachusetts plan by pointing out that it involves private insurance. That makes it exactly the same as Obama’s plan, but Romney probably figures most conservative voters don’t know that, and he’s probably right. Here's a good example of Romney on health care:
Obamacare intends to put someone between you and your physician. It must be repealed. And if I'm president of the United States, on my first day in office, I will issue an executive order which directs the secretary of health and human services to provide a waiver from Obamacare to all 50 states. That law is bad; it's unconstitutional; it shall not stand.
Rather he uses every question as an opportunity to convey to conservatives that he shares their general sense of anger and grievance against Obama. He does so without, in most cases, tying himself down to specific policy stances that could harm him in the general election.
I had assumed that Romney would face insurmountable obstacles because he is not, at heart, a true conservative. But this turns out to be something that allows him to pander to the base more effectively. It allows him to treat conservatism as a psychological condition, one he can pander to without the complicating burden of taking it seriously. (His contempt for the party base has always endeared him to me.)
Romney still has enormous vulnerabilities if the right opponent can exploit them. And it’s worth keeping in mind that Perry will have more success exploiting them through written speeches and paid advertisements — he’s just too slow-witted to express them in debate. Still, we may be approaching a danger zone for Perry where the Party Establishment panics about his suitability and throws itself openly behind Romney.
I thought Perry had a nearly unbeatable position last month, but he’s playing it pretty badly, and Romney is playing his position extremely well.