It's OK to stop pretending, Mitt

The defeated White House candidate returns to the place where his reputation for spineless opportunism was born

Published February 21, 2013 6:00PM (EST)

So Mitt Romney is heading back to CPAC. The GOP’s failed presidential nominee, who’s barely been heard from since conceding defeat to President Obama more than three months ago, will turn up at next month’s conservative mega-conference, his highest-profile appearance since the meeting.

According to a statement, Romney sees the event as an opportunity to say “thank you to the many friends and supporters who were instrumental in helping my campaign.” Al Cardenas, the president of the American Conservative Union and an organizer of the annual event, said that attendees will be eager to hear Romney’s “comments on the current state of affairs in America and the world, and his perspective on the future of the conservative movement.” The Cardenas connection is worth noting; he was among the few Republicans with solid movement conservative credentials to stand with Romney in both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

If this all seems a bit awkward, it should. Romney and CPAC were never a particularly good match. The former Massachusetts governor took an interest in the annual gathering when he set out to seek the ’08 GOP nomination. At the time, there seemed to be a gaping opening on the right. Neither of the two front-runners, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, were trusted by the true-believer right – McCain because of immigration and campaign finance reform (not to mention his spite-fueled hostility to George W. Bush in the early phase of his presidency), Giuliani because of the liberal stands on abortion, gay rights and gun control he staked out in his New York City days. And the candidate who was supposed to be the right’s savior, George Allen, had unexpectedly lost his 2006 Senate reelection bid in Virginia, ending his national hopes on the spot.

The nomination, the Romney team quickly concluded, would be theirs if they could position their candidate as the pure alternative to McCain and Giuliani. The only problem: Romney, to that point, had never been a conservative purist, at least publicly. As a candidate in Massachusetts, he’d bent over backward to establish pro-choice bona fides, pledged to do more for gay rights than Ted Kennedy and distanced himself from Reagan-Bush Republican orthodoxy. And as governor, he’d signed the state on to a regional greenhouse gas initiative and closed a budget deficit with massive fee hikes. But when it came time to run in ’08, he settled on a strategy of pretending none of this had ever happened. The Romney who showed up at CPAC in early 2007 vehemently embraced the conservative cause and openly mocked his home state and its liberal reputation. He was a youthful and energetic 59 and his speech stirred genuine excitement. Romney won the ’07 straw poll and seemed on course to staking out his desired position in the field.

But it was mostly a sham, of course, and as details – and YouTube videos – of Romney’s past crimes against conservatism began circulating widely, his momentum stalled. For a brief period in ’07, he climbed to the lead in both Iowa and New Hampshire polling, putting him in position to pull off a nomination-sealing one-two punch at the start of the primary season. But doubts about his true convictions grew, particularly on the Christian right, where his Mormonism may also have hindered him. Romney fared respectably in Iowa on caucus night, but the story was Mike Huckabee’s solid 9-point victory. Then, five days later, a resurgent McCain denied Romney in New Hampshire. That set up a three-way race Romney was doomed to lose, with large, more moderate states siding with McCain and conservative Southerners splitting their loyalties between Huckabee and Romney. Romney never got the clear conservative/liberal one-on-one shot against McCain that his campaign had been built around.

With his campaign fading, Romney saw a new opportunity in the 2008 edition of CPAC. Fresh off a disappointing Super Tuesday, he showed up at the D.C. gathering and surprised attendees by using his red meat-laden speech to drop out. Claiming that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were both soft on al-Qaida, Rommey told the crowd that it was important to unite as a party and that “frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.” There were, it was reported, tears in the room as he spoke.

The play was obvious. Romney wasn’t so much dropping out of the ’08 race as he was declaring his candidacy for ’12. He’d done well in the ’08 primaries, but there’d been too many doubts on the right about his sincerity. But here he was, at the end of his campaign, reassuring them that he’d been on their side all along – and that he always would be. With McCain likely to lose in November, Romney saw a clear path to the ’12 nomination. His Massachusetts apostasies would be ancient history and this time conservatives would embrace him as one of their own from start to finish.

Instead, though, his problems with the right grew worse. Some of this had to do with healthcare. The program that Obama and his fellow Democrats pushed through in 2009 and 2010 was based on Romney’s Massachusetts law. With Republicans screaming socialism, Romney was forced to join the chorus of objectors, but his rationale was jarringly incoherent. The bigger problem for Romney, though, was the Tea Party movement that grew out of Obama’s election. To explain how the country had elected a far-left radical like Obama, conservatives opted to blame the Bush-era Republican establishment – leaders who talked a good conservative game but sold out their principles once in power, thereby giving the movement a bad name and paving the way for Obama’s rise. The Tea Party was really a two-front war – one against Obama, the other against any Republican politician who reeked of insiderdom or insufficient purity.

This jammed up Romney badly. He’d hoped that no one would care about his old Massachusetts record the second time around, but now it mattered even more to the Tea Party crowd. In 2010 and 2011, he suffered the indignity of losing the CPAC straw poll to Ron Paul, and in 2012 he only barely beat Rick Santorum.

Romney’s Obama-era CPAC struggles spoke to a challenge his ’12 campaign never overcame: to shore up the GOP’s restive conservative base in a way that would allow him to pivot to the middle in pursuit of general election voters. Even after winning the nomination last year, Romney was paralyzed by fear of alienating the right and of conservatives not showing up at the polls. The best he could ultimately manage in the race’s closing weeks was a rhetorical – but not policy – shift to the middle.

Exactly where Mitt Romney falls on the ideological spectrum – if he falls anywhere on it at all – is a mystery for the ages. He made some post-election comments, intended for an audience of donors and no one else, that suggest contempt for those who utilize government assistance programs, but mainly he was an opportunist. In Massachusetts, he said what moderates and liberals wanted to hear, and as a candidate for the Republican nomination, he said what conservatives wanted to hear. And as a major party presidential nominee, he was left with almost nothing to say. And now he’s going back to CPAC for a completely unnecessary encore. He’s done running for office and he doesn’t need to pander anymore. So besides “thanks, guys,” there probably won’t be much for him to say this time.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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Barack Obama Cpac John Mccain Mike Huckabee Mitt Romney Opening Shot