The freedom W. had — and Mitt lacks

When W. needed to separate himself from a spoiled GOP label, Republicans played along. Things have changed

Topics: War Room,

The freedom W. had -- and Mitt lacksMitt Romney (Credit: AP/Michael Conroy)

The Republican Party’s standing with the public plunged in the wake of last summer’s debt ceiling standoff and has yet to recover. Just 35 percent of voters, according to a recent poll, have a favorable view of the GOP, while 58 percent have an unfavorable one. By contrast, nearly 50 percent of voters view the Democratic Party favorably.

The poisoning of the GOP brand can probably be linked to a few factors, but the compromise-resistant ideological absolutism of the House seems to be the biggest single driver. Thus, the prevailing assumption is that Mitt Romney will at some point stage a dramatic break with House Republicans on some defining issue, a reassuring gesture to swing voters who want to get rid of Barack Obama but who are queasy with the Obama-era GOP’s radicalism.

But, as Jonathan Weisman and Jennifer Steinhauer report in the New York Times today, Republicans in the House are on guard for such a moment and are already making it clear to Romney that “they are driving the policy agenda for the party now.”

This captures the bind in which Romney finds himself. He came to the national stage with a reputation as a moderate, then adjusted his positions until they were in almost perfect alignment with his party’s conservative base. This is why his emergence as the presumptive nominee does not represent a rebuke of Tea Party Republicanism; conservative purists may deeply distrust Romney, but so far as a candidate he’s basically given them everything they wanted. It was enough to secure the nomination for Romney, but it won’t buy him the benefit of the doubt from the right if he now makes any big steps back to the middle.

For example, the Times story quotes Rep. Tim Griffin, a first-term Arkansan with impeccable Tea Party credentials, warning about what would happen if Romney distanced himself from House Republicans on the Paul Ryan budget that Democrats are itching to run against:

“If there was to be a difference of opinion on this, then I think I would make my feelings known,” said Representative Tim Griffin, Mr. Romney’s Arkansas campaign chairman. “I would say, ‘Wait, what are you doing?’ If he says something I disagree with, that’s his right, but I am going to say I disagree.”

The story also draws a parallel to the 2000 campaign, when George W. Bush picked a fight of his own with the House GOP:

In 1999, as House Republicans grappled with far more modest spending cuts, George W. Bush was able to underscore his claim to “compassionate conservatism” by denouncing House efforts. “I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor,” he said

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican House leader at the time, recalled that as a “defining moment” for the Bush campaign — one that blindsided Republicans. As Mr. Romney’s designated liaison to congressional Republicans, Mr. Blunt said that one of his jobs was to make sure no one is surprised like that again.

You Might Also Like

It’s worth considering the Bush example a little more closely. It came as the fiscal year was coming to a close at the end of September ’99, when House Republicans proposed delaying earned income tax credit payments in order to avoid relying on Social Security money to balance the budget. Then, as now, House Republicans were hurting the party’s national image. In the fall of ’99, the GOP’s favorable score was on the upswing (it had cratered at 31 percent during the Clinton impeachment saga of 1998 and early ’99), but it was still nowhere near the Democrats’.

Bush was the overwhelming Republican front-runner at the time, and while it’s true that his remark produced some real outrage from House Republicans, he was never in danger of facing a true revolt from the right. In fact, days after his “backs of the poor” comment, he delivered a speech in which he distanced himself even more from the perceived ideological excesses of the House:

“Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah,” Mr. Bush said in that speech. “Too often, my party has focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else — speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers. Too often, my party has confused the need for limited Government with a disdain for Government itself.”

Bush was allowed by his party to get away with this kind of talk throughout the 2000 campaign. Sure, his primary season opponents played it up and some conservative leaders raised hell too, but Bush came to the race with broad support from many of the right’s most influential figures.

This represents a key difference between where the party was in 2000 and where it is today. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was the product of the GOP’s futility in battling Clinton. After swamping him in the 1994 midterms, Republicans watched in horror as Clinton regained his popularity by portraying the GOP Congress as a band of ideological extremists bent on destroying the country’s social safety net. Over and over, he beat them soundly — the 1995 government shutdown, the 1996 election, the ‘98/’99 impeachment ordeal.

For conservatives, the basic appeal of Bush was that he’d be their own Clinton – someone with similar charm and charisma who’d finally be able to deflect the Democratic attacks. They didn’t want him straying too far ideologically, but they were more than happy to give him a lot of room to roam.

Today’s conservatives aren’t looking for another Clinton. They haven’t faced a humbling defeat at Obama’s hands (not yet, at least), and they believe adamantly that rigid adherence to their ideology is a winning national strategy. This doesn’t mean Romney won’t try to distance himself, but if he does, he’ll face a much fiercer backlash than Bush ever did.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>