The Republican non-romance with Mitt Romney reminds me of Henry VIII's uncharacteristically reluctant marriage to Anne of Cleves — the king's fourth wife. She was a minor German princess who, to the king's advisers, looked like the ideal political match. A dubious Henry resisted — and insisted that the great portrait artist Hans Holbein be sent to paint her picture. The work flattered Anne by framing (and overwhelming) her with a bejeweled gold headdress and gown.
Henry acceded to the marriage, but snuck down to Rochester to check out Anne on her progress toward London. He was not pleased with what he saw. For diplomatic reasons, he had to go through with the marriage, but never consummated it. Within six months, he divorced Anne and had his Chancellor Thomas Cromwell beheaded. He then married again — and again.
A Romney loss to Obama would reinforce the GOP’s displacement to the extreme.
We live in a more benign time — and in any event, the GOP can't seem to divorce Romney. Unlike Henry VIII, the party has no other viable choice on offer. On paper, at least to the Republican establishment, Romney may be the right choice. And in reality, he's now the only choice — both because delegate rules and his resources, even if they are suddenly strained, work in his favor, and because no one else in the field is a thinkable nominee.
But unrequited love has transformed Romney's progress toward the Tampa convention into a rough and rutted road, steadily weakening him for the contest with President Obama, and almost certainly strengthening Democratic chances not just in 2012 but in 2016.
First, this year's excruciating primary race for Romney: Witness the tableau at his Boston headquarters as Super Tuesday turned dark. A gathering that was supposed to declare victory became more and more unconvincing as the frontrunner's campaign struggled to hold onto his Ohio safety net by a thread. Simultaneously, in Tennessee, the state Mitt saw as his main chance in the South and where he advertised heavily, he fell decisively to Rick Santorum.
The Ohio exit polls reaffirmed that Romney hasn't reassured conservatives and evangelicals — or connected with blue-collar voters. On CNBC's Sqawkbox Wednesday morning, Mitt proclaimed with a wan smile that he had carried states across America, "from Alaska to Vermont." It was a sad moment in the history of spin. In the South, Romney took nothing except Virginia, where the fix was in because Santorum and Gingrich were off the ballot. In addition to Tennessee, he lost Georgia and Oklahoma — and in the Great Plains, he finished third in North Dakota. He won handily in the Mormon-heavy caucuses in Idaho, barely squeaked by in Alaska, and swept New England states he will surely lose in the fall.
Next week appears bleak; the big action is in Romney-averse Mississippi, Alabama, and Kansas. His main chance may be in Hawaii; reporting in the wee hours, its votes are unlikely to modulate the outcomes elsewhere.
On the evidence, Romney is a recurringly hard sell in a political party that has morphed, as one GOP strategist privately puts it, into a sectarian religious party — where no matter how he bends to the right, the true believers will not be inclined to him. This leaves him with one tactic — heavy super PAC spending to trash Santorum — the expedient that let Romney eke out Ohio. Only 13 percent of all the pro-Romney ads there were pro-anything; they were relentlessly negative. Such tactics may soon prove ineffective; Santorum not only survived such a blitz in Tennessee, but triumphed over it.
Romney will have help from Gingrich — as he previously has from the fading Ron Paul, who's scorched his rivals but had hardly a discouraging word to say about the un-libertarian author of RomneyCare. The former Speaker of the House, who succeeded on Super Tuesday solely in his home state of Georgia, exults in his encore in the klieg lights; his victory speech was a rambling exercise in self-indulgence. If he withdrew, more of his voters would move toward Santorum; but Gingrich himself apparently isn't moving anywhere except toward the next camera.
Critics suggest that Santorum at times is his own worst enemy. (To paraphrase Churchill, that's probably not true as long as Romney's around.) By the conventional reckoning, the decidedly former Pennsylvania senator — he set a record for an incumbent's margin of defeat — keeps stepping on his own message by shifting his emphasis from the manufacturing economy to social issues like his enmity toward birth control. But the missteps are the heart of a message that appeals to conservative and right-wing evangelicals — even as they repel mainstream Americans. Santorum can't expand his base; women rescued Romney in both Michigan and Ohio. Nonetheless, the base can prolong the race — and has — by stubbornly resisting Romney.
Mitt's response is a modified imitation of Rick, whose gravitational pull has dragged Romney closer to the ideological edge; he has to go there, or so he calculates, to allay the distrust that has debilitated his candidacy. Thus he shrank from all but the mildest nuance of difference with Rush Limbaugh's scurrilous and sexist attack on the young Georgetown law student who testified in favor of contraceptive coverage.
The long contest, the constant pandering, and his own tendency to sound like a political incarnation of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous have taken their toll on Romney as a general election candidate. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, his positive rating is now down to 28 percent, and his negative is 39 percent. The erosion continues week to week — and is compounded by real world events. As the economy improves, Romney's rationale wanes: Why do we need an out-of-touch, unlikeable, asset-stripping ex-CEO to secure a recovery that's already underway?
Obama's favorable rating is 20 points higher than Romney's, and his unfavorable is lower. In most polls, the president's lead over Romney is widening. There are the pro forma qualifiers — for example, a eurozone shock to the economy, or a conflict with Iran, which too many Republicans are recklessly inciting. But the prospect of the first seems increasingly remote, and the political fallout of a foreign crisis is unpredictable — except that when one hits, Americans tend to rally around the president.
The agony of the GOP, confirmed and extended on Super Tuesday, is good news for Democrats. And so is the longer term impact of what's probable in November. Yes, Santorum or Gingrich would be easier to beat — actually, to crush — but a Romney nomination and subsequent loss would reap the whirlwind among Republicans. The almost certain reaction, the almost irresistible rationalization, would hold that the fault lies in an establishment that foisted another "moderate" on the party; that Romney wasn't reliably far right enough — and the next time, the nominee has to be someone who's truly, fully, and uncompromisingly conservative.
In 2016, this could make it hard for Jeb Bush, who's responded to the excesses of this primary season — the "appeal[s] to people's fears and emotions" — by mourning: "I used to be a conservative." The third Bush still is — but more in the mold of Ronald Reagan — optimistic and reaching out as Reagan did to blue-collar Democrats and Hispanics. Or think of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's transgressions: He favors a referendum on marriage equality, supports some forms of gun control, and refused to join the legal challenge to Obama's health reform.
The sounds of recrimination are already being heard. Take this complaint: "Conservatives certainly make up the large majority within the Republican Party. So why do we keep getting snookered...by candidates who are barely palatable."
An Obama landslide over Santorum — with the president winning 57 or 58 percent of the vote and the GOP losing the Senate and even the House — would force the party to rethink itself and rediscover the reasonable side of the mainstream. A Romney loss, by a lesser margin, would reinforce the party's displacement to the extreme. This won't be a happy result for America, which needs two great and sensible political parties — not just center-left Democrats, but the Republicanism of Eisenhower, Reagan, the Bushes, and even Nixon.
Yes, unlike Henry VIII, this year's GOP can't quite manage a divorce from its pre-ordained political match. When Romney prevails and then fails and the predictable repercussions come, 2016 will see the Tea-types finally having their way. President (Hillary) Clinton, President Biden, President Cuomo, or President O'Malley will be very grateful.