In terms of theater, it was an unfortunate mistake when Mitt Romney introduced Paul Ryan as “the next president of the United States” on Saturday. In terms of substance, though, the slip-up was unintentionally revealing. Because while it will be the former Massachusetts governor who is sworn in as the 45th president if the GOP ticket prevails this November, it will be Ryan who sets the new administration’s policy direction.
The Ryan selection really is the perfect expression of the relationship that exists between Romney and his party’s base. For a host of reasons, Romney has never been a natural match for the conservative leaders and voters who hold sway in the GOP, and since turning his attention to the national stage, Romney has consistently erred on the side of accommodating them.
It almost worked in his first presidential race, four years ago. In the run-up to that campaign, Romney junked the cultural liberalism and general pragmatism that had defined his Massachusetts political career, switching his position on abortion, adopting a hardline tone on gay issues, realigning himself with the NRA and so on. Doubts about the sincerity of his conversion plagued him, but he became the closest thing there was to a consensus conservative alternative to John McCain, ultimately ending his campaign at the 2008 CPAC convention, where his words left some attendees in tears.
After that, it seemed logical to assume Romney would be the party’s 2012 candidate. The passage of time would further erase memories of his moderate past, conservatives would give in, and the GOP’s tendency to nominate the next-in-line guy would take over. But when John McCain lost to Barack Obama and the ’12 GOP nomination officially opened up, something funny happened: Romney’s problem with the base got even worse.
This has to do with how the right rationalized Obama’s victory. Interpreting the ’08 result as a broad rejection of conservatism was out of the question, so conservatives instead sold themselves on a narrative that portrayed George W. Bush as an ideological imposter who had spent eight years betraying the cause and pursuing Big Government policies. The idea was that Bush had given conservatism an undeservedly bad name, and that this had made possible the ascension of Obama, a genuine radical (in the right’s telling, anyway). Thus did conservatives launch a two-front war in early 2009, one against Obama, the other a purity crusade within the GOP.
The result was a new round of scrutiny over Romney’s past, especially when Obama decided to use Romney’s Massachusetts healthc are law as the basis for his own. Curiously, in the ’08 campaign RomneyCare hadn’t been much of a problem for Romney as he pursued the GOP base. But in the Obama-era, it became the chief complaint of conservatives who saw Romney as exactly the type of Republican who’d sell them out once in office. This accounts for the almost comical spectacle that defined the GOP race all of last year, with one random opponent after another zooming past Romney in the polls only to crash and burn.
In the end, two things saved Romney. One was the lack of a genuinely competent and well-credentialed conservative foe; had one emerged, Romney surely would have been left in the dust. The other was Romney’s willingness to embrace virtually every theme and issue position that’s important to Obama-era conservatives. The right may not have trusted him, but in his pandering, Romney was essentially acknowledging and bowing to their power. In a way, this made him an attractive candidate to conservatives. Grover Norquist spelled it out in a memorable CPAC speech this February:
All we have to do is replace Obama … We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go … We just need a president to sign this stuff … Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States … His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.
It’s typical for candidates to play to their party’s base in the primary season, then move to the middle in the fall and, if elected, govern more from the center. But Romney doesn’t have that luxury because his fortunes – this fall and, if he’s elected, as president – will depend on keeping the GOP base in line. And that GOP base is in no mood to tolerate moderation and compromise, and has shown itself to be ready and willing to revolt against any Republican who goes down that road. On Capitol Hill, this dynamic has silenced and paralyzed previously pragmatic Republicans (including the Speaker of the House). Romney will be in the same position if he’s president. There are those who believe that, deep inside, he’s a man of moderate politics. But if he tries to govern that way, the result would be an ugly, presidency-crippling intraparty revolt.
The Ryan selection is a confirmation of this dynamic. The economic ideas that have animated the right’s Obama-era revolt were supplied by Ryan, who in the past few years has emerged as one of the conservative movement’s top national leaders. It will be his ideas that Romney will be under enormous pressure to pursue and implement as president, and his brand of conservatism that Romney is expected to emulate.