Rarely have Republican voters made it as obvious that they would rather have anyone else than the inevitable nominee. Romney has the delegates summons all the voter enthusiasm of Taft and Ford combined. The establishment, as usual, isn't paying attention or pondering the implication of a situation where Rick Santorum is repeatedly beating out Romney, not just because of his message, but because any non-Romney is capable of doing the same thing. And has done it.
The electorate wants change. The party doesn't. The electorate wants principles. The party doesn't. There's a middle ground between the two, but so far it's been hard to find. The pure candidates tend to be inexperienced with problematic backgrounds who are unused to operating in the political arena. The realpolitik candidates have no values or principles, and knowingly or unknowingly, advance the liberal agenda.
As a candidate Romney has one thing going for him, electability... just not in the actual primaries of his own party where he had to be helped over the finish line by the party establishment in a campaign where his only asset is his electability in a future campaign. Voting for Romney is an investment in defeating Obama, even if the returns aren't so great. Romney is low risk and low yield. There isn't much reason to hate him unless you're a conservative or a member of Occupy Wall Street. That's his best and only asset in a general election.
Putting forward an electable moderate with an ambiguous position on most issues is a credible strategy for winning elections, even if it isn't a very promising one. The establishment is betting that come election day, Romney will still look like a reasonable choice compared to the man presiding over an economic disaster. No one will be fired up at the thought of pulling the lever for him, but he will look like the guy you want to hire to fix the problem that the last guy you hired caused.
Is that a good bet? Over a few months the media turned a popular moderate Republican war hero who was well liked even by them into a crazy senile monster who would turn America into a Christian dictatorship. They also turned a young reformist female governor into a crazed idiot.
Romney will probably go on smiling even as HBO goes forward with a 10 part movie on the dog on the roof of his car and a documentary on sexual abuse in the Mormon Church. He'll go on making the tour even as the media suggests that he's actually taking orders from racists, misogynists and anti-semites in a secretive bigoted religious group that wants to control America. And when the media digs up a woman who claims that he touched her inappropriately thirty years ago, he'll take the podium to deny everything. And he may even win despite all this and worse.
There was a time when being a liberal Republican provided you with a limited pass from the media. The press might do everything in its power to portray Goldwater as a homicidal lunatic who needs to be hospitalized before he destroys the world, but it wouldn't treat Lindsay the same way. McCain was counting on that same privilege, when he should have been paying attention to how the media treated Hillary Clinton, a left-leaning pal who had dressed up as a conservative Democrat in her path to the White House. The idea that any Republican, no matter how moderate, will be treated as anything less than the devil when running against a progressive, is as outdated as the telegraph.
The media lynched Democrats like Lieberman and Hillary Clinton in the most vicious and hateful ways possible. What they did to McCain afterward is no surprise. What they will do to Romney will top even that.
Being unobjectionable won't get you a pass, but it makes the attacks more difficult to organize and launch. The media will still bring out the noose, but it will have trouble tightening the knot. A smart candidate can dodge and make the lynchers seem stupid even in their own eyes. Scott Brown has rebounded in a campaign against a chosen Obama progressive.following a class warfare theme. But Romney isn't Scott Brown, though he wishes he were.
Still you can't deny that Romney has soldiered on. The remaining candidates in the race are survivors who have marched the long grim road, refusing to drop out no matter what. They are four men who just don't give up. They have all been hated, ridiculed and told that they aren't wanted, that the party and the country would be better off if they just went home. And they haven't gone home. Instead they've gone from state to state carrying their message.
That's a partial preparation for the real campaign, for which there can be no real preparation in the Age of Obama. The Hanoi Hilton didn't prepare McCain for running against the Pravda Press and no preparation is possible for a campaign in which the media will pull out all its stops to keep Obama in power.
The Republican Party is still relying on the old strategy of racing for the center, but that strategy works best when the media isn't running daily stories accusing you of being to the right of Hitler. 2012 will be the acid test for the strategy of tactical moderation. If it fails again, this time with a candidate who lacks any of McCain's minuses, then it may be time to retire the jolly RINO act for good and bring out an angry elephant who can challenge liberal pieties and fight for conservative values on a national stage.
Conservatives have not made much forward progress in the last century or in this one. One of the few victories was on the Second Amendment where a coalition was successfully put together to aggressively push back against gun control efforts. In most other areas, the left has pushed on and on until what used to be radicalism became so mainstream that few Republicans would dare argue against it.
By running as centrists, the Democrats have made their agenda centrist. But Republicans have mostly failed to do that except in the War on Terror. Republicans have not mainstreamed conservative values with their centrism, instead they have mainlined liberal programs.
Republican moderation is an approach that wins the election by losing the argument. Republican strategists strategize which argument their candidate will concede from the start to show what a centrist moderate he really is. Should he be a social issues moderate, an economic moderate, a social safety net moderate, a foreign policy moderate or all of the above.
While this strategy still has some future in state politics, it has no future in national elections. If moderation no longer wins you a wink from the media, what does it really get you besides the chance to be a graceful and grateful loser? And even the Republican establishment is likely to get tired of good loserdom if Romney pulls a McCain. They may even decide that the best way to win an election is to win the argument. A truly novel idea.
The media complains incessantly about the rightward drift of the Republican Party, but that drift is entirely the result of a leftward drift by the Democratic Party. Had the Democrats not gone so far to the left, anyone to the right of Che would not have suddenly found themselves homeless. The majority of the Democratic Party's base has no idea what its party stands for, if they did, they would be gone in a flash. That includes most of the minorities.
The Republican Party has found itself in the awkward position of having to be a conservative party in more dimensions than the Chamber of Commerce line. Its leadership is not particularly comfortable with a base that doesn't cheer for immigration reform or gay marriage and believes in an actual war between good and evil. Centrism has given it the opportunity to betray its base while winning elections. But if it can't win elections on centrism, then the viability of the strategy goes out the window.
Romney is the last hurrah of the old Republican Party, the centrist strategy deployed one more time. If he wins, the strategy gains an extension, and he might well win. But if he doesn't, then party politics will tilt firmly to the right.
That is a paradox that the Democrats used to understand. There is no victory in defeating a moderate Republican. But from Obama on down, theirs is no longer a party that thinks in the long term. It wants everything and it wants it now. That radicalism has fired up the Tea Party and is swiftly bringing us to the realization of the culture war that the flank on both sides wanted.
The centrists have been thoroughly marginalized on the Democratic side. Now the same thing is happening on the Republican side. The left will pen its usual tomes warning about the rise of the right, but the rise of the right has the left to thank for it.