As you've probably noticed, this has been a good week for Mitt Romney, who seems to be winning over the elite Republican donors who'd been trying to recruit Chris Christie into the race and who has regained the lead in national polls thanks to Rick Perry's self-initiated free fall. But how good?
To answer that, I decided to check in on Sean Hannity's Fox News show last night. As I've written before, I'm using what I call the "Hannity Test" to gauge Romney's progress in the GOP race. The basic idea is that Romney, because of the party base's deep suspicion of him, needs Republican opinion leaders to vouch for him, and to play along with the rationalizations he's desperately trying to sell to GOP voters.
And when it comes to Republican opinion leaders, Hannity is pretty much the gold standard these days. While there are conservative voices who speak to larger flocks (Bill O'Reilly's Fox show drawn more viewers than Hannity's, just as Rush Limbaugh's radio show draws more listeners), Hannity represents the optimal convergence of audience size and loyalty to Republican messaging. Rush and Bill will occasionally grant their own passions and peeves priority over the interests of the GOP, but as O'Reilly himself put it a few weeks ago, Hannity "has a Republican show, and Republicans should have a show."
This makes him an excellent barometer: If Hannity begins using his platform to encourage his conservative viewers not to worry too much about "RomneyCare" and all of Mitt's other past crimes against conservatism, it will be a strong indication of where the party's elites want this process to go -- and how they will persuade the party's base to go there. Last night seemed like the perfect time to tune in. Christie had officially backed down the day before, Sarah Palin's announcement had come hours earlier, and the reality that the GOP field really is set was finally setting in. Plus, Hannity's guest was Senator Jim DeMint, who may be the most popular member of Congress with Republican base voters. How would these two Republican leaders, the party cheerleader and the Tea Party hero, assess the race now?
The segment began with the two men heaping praise on Palin. Hannity said her refusal to run is "probably a good decision for her family" because "she has been beaten up so badly all the time," while DeMint asserted that the former half-term Alaska governor has "done as much to change the political landscape in America probably as much as anyone since Ronald Reagan." (In its own way, this was a telling exchange: Palin has plenty of ardent fans on the right, but it's also obvious that she'd become electoral poison since the 2008 campaign. Had she run, conservative opinion-shapers might have felt it necessary to ramp up their efforts to undermine her standing with the base. But by passing, she can retain her status on the right as the preeminent victim of left-wing cruelty and a Reagan-like leader.)
Then they moved on to the good stuff, and it became clear right away that Hannity was interested in playing the role of party unifier -- in a way that's very helpful to Romney.
"I've never believed the media narrative, which is this is a weak field," he told DeMint, segueing into a question about whether DeMint agrees with the narrative that the GOP race is essentially "between more, quote, establishment people and Tea Party candidates." DeMint replied that he didn't. Which set Hannity up to say this:
But all of the candidates, they want to repeal Obama-care, all of them want lower taxes, all of them want more energy independence, all of them want less regulation, so it seems while there are distinctions, it seems that they are on the right conservative path. Do you agree with that?
DeMint indicated that he did, which prompted Hannity to issue another Romney-friendly statement-disguised-as-a-question:
Let me ask you this. Does it matter to you or how much does it impact you, for example, Governor Romney has to answer "RomneyCare," Governor Perry has to answer his immigration policy, in-state tuition breaks for illegal immigrants. Herman Cain has to answer that he never held political office. Newt Gingrich has to answer for everything that happened when he was Speaker. Should that be the deciding issue, what happened in the past or what they are saying now?
DeMint said that the past matters a little, but that he's more concerned with the future. Hannity then asked if he'd support every candidate in the field in the general election, and DeMint said he would. And that ended the interview.
Full disclosure: I'm not a regular Hannity viewer, so I can't say if he's been doing this sort of thing all along. But his entire approach here seemed noteworthy for how helpful it is to Romney. About 2 million people watch Hannity's show each night, and it's probably not a stretch to say that, functionally, most of them are Republicans. It's probably also not a stretch to say that most or all of them are well aware of all of Romney's ideological baggage. And here's a trusted conservative voice asking leading questions to a trusted Tea Party leader that encourages viewers to regard Romney as a perfectly acceptable choice, one who may have some flaws "in the past" (just like the others!) but who is now as committed as any of the candidates to the conservative agenda. And, as DeMint even said, isn't the future more important than the past?
This is exactly the sort of message that Romney needs Republican opinion leaders to be sending. The reluctance of the GOP base to suspend its doubts and get on board has kept him from breaking 25 percent in national polls, even as Perry's support has melted down. But Perry is reeling now, and with Christie and Palin out, the prospect of a new candidate has been extinguished. There's a real opportunity here for Romney, whose unspoken strategy has always rested on being the candidate of last resort for the GOP base. But he needs people whom the base trusts to tell them it's OK. I'd say Hannity did that last night.