Book written by: Stephen Baskerville, Cumberland House
He took all the orthodox positions. He had the deep pockets, the executive experience, and the disciplined organization. He had endorsements from the likes of Rick Santorum, Paul Weyrich, Bob Jones, and Michael Novak (plus a nice plug from a certain Catholic hack). He had far and away the best hair. But today Mitt Romney is licking his wounds and pondering his future, rather than looking ahead to a general election campaign. A week after his mildly surprising (if only for its timing) announcement that he'd removed himself from the GOP primary race, and a day after casting his lot with former foe John McCain, it's time to take stock of why the Romney effort failed, and what I think those reasons might tell us about the future of Republican-brand conservatism. Reason One: Too many social conservatives didn't trust Romney's "conversion." Exit polls show that in almost all the states where Romney competed, he won either a plurality or an equal share of pro-life and highly conservative voters (typically a greater portion than eventual presumptive nominee McCain). Yet it's clear that Romney's social-liberal past -- particularly the pro-abortion statements he made while running for (and serving as) governor of Massachusetts, the abortion provisions of his administration's health care plan, and his failure to wield executive power to stave off court-imposed gay marriage there -- stuck in the craw of a not-insignificant number of social conservative voters. When Romney embarked on an effort to woo those same people by trumpeting his pro-life "conversion" and by taking action against embryonic stem cell research funding, he was predictably hit with derision from the liberal secular media -- for having "flip-flopped," yes, but also, significantly, for the positions he flip-flopped to. One wonders if he'd had a conversion away from pro-life principles (as, say, Ted Kennedy or Al Gore had done), whether he would have been applauded rather than censured. Nonetheless, the flip-flopper name stuck, not just with Romney's liberal enemies but with some conservatives as well, who, instead of welcoming him as a neophyte in their cause, became confirmed in their suspicions that Romney's change of heart was a sham, or, at best, directed by the political winds. He had never actually betrayed pro-lifers -- that is, posed pro-life but then turned and governed pro-abortion -- but apparently enough of them believed he would, if given a chance. What does this teach us? That a goodly number of social conservatives are gun shy about past betrayals by Republican pro-lifers-of-convenience, and they will no longer suffer to be served Republicans whose past credentials are less than sparkling. Reason Two: Huckabee split his support. It also didn't help Romney that such voters had a ready alternative: Baptist minister Mike Huckabee. Right from the start, Romney's careful plan of building momentum with those painstakingly wooed social conservatives took a body blow when Iowa's ideologically pure caucus-goers handed Huckabee a stunning victory. From that point the fight was on, and in most states where Romney competed, he and Huckabee would split the religious and social-conservative votes, while McCain (in the serendipitous absence of his natural predator Rudy Giuliani) was left alone to Hoover up the lion's share of social moderate and pro-abortion votes (and, it should be said, many pro-life votes too, especially in his second home of New Hampshire). At a Romney town hall meeting I attended in New Hampshire, a youngish mother who oozed "Evangelical homeschooler" from her every pore asked him what he would do if faced with a choice between two candidates: one with whom he agreed on most issues but not religion, and one whom he liked less politically, but shared religious convictions with. Romney deadpanned, "This is a purely hypothetical scenario, right?" The audience laughed, because the writing was on the wall: Romney had a serious rival for social/religious conservatives, and it was Mike Huckabee. All the way through to Super Tuesday he would ensure that no single clear alternative to McCain (who, despite a dutiful pro-life record, and despite having done some fence-mending and wooing of his own, historically had dismissed and antagonized the Religious Right) would emerge. Indeed, Huckabee's strong showing since Romney's departure may be owed in no small part to his inheritance of Romney's former supporters. Huckabee made life harder for Romney in other areas. He would tack hard right on immigration, further diluting Romney's distinctive appeal when compared to McCain. He also provided the other "executive" choice (no senator has been elected president in 40-plus years), and after developing what National Review's Rich Lowry called a "man crush" on John McCain, seemed to revel in forming a united front with McCain against Romney. What does this teach us? The perils of political divide-and-be-conquered. Social-religious conservatives will exert the most influence, on the Republican Party and on the culture, when they can unite behind one candidate -- or bill, or referendum, or initiative.