Opinion Columns & Blogs

The conservative anguish over Romney

After the Nov. 9 debate, some began calling Mitt Romney the “presumptive nominee.” Indeed, despite momentary uneasiness when a questioner brought up the personal mandate in his Massachusetts health plan, he held his own — as he had in earlier debates.

He continues to cruise while the rest of the field remains locked in a cage fight over who will be the conservative standard-bearer.

Michele Bachmann had her time to shine in Iowa, then sank in the polls. Rick Perry rode out of Texas and into the vanguard, but he soon sank as well. Several weeks after announcing his bid, he was still answering queries about his economic plan by changing the subject and talking about Texas.

Then came last week’s lapse. We have all experienced brain freezes in odd moments, but Perry’s was devastating because it reinforced earlier impressions of rhetorical inadequacy. Perry has been the most astonishing flameout of all.

As for Herman Cain, his hopes of winning the nomination were a fantasy from the beginning, and his problems are damaging because they strike on multiple fronts. He seems not to have known that China is a long-established nuclear power. He was unacquainted with the Palestinian claim of a “right of return” to Israeli territory, a long-standing deal-killer in Arab-Israeli negotiations. He was unacquainted with the neoconservative branch of the conservative movement.

He is not only revealed as intellectually incurious, he now faces allegations of sexual harassment, and his poor handling of these charges has raised questions about his vaunted executive talent. He had 10 days’ warning that the initial article was coming. He still couldn’t frame a consistent response.

Newt Gingrich is taking his turn as the anti-Mitt, thanks to his solid showing in the debates. The Nov. 9 outing was no exception. But many primary voters will not forget that Gingrich’s ego can bollix his judgment. To many voters, his imperious airs are off-putting.

The way this has played out has been upsetting to many conservatives concerned about Romney’s many flips and flops — even on defining issues such as abortion. He rose to prominence as governor of a deep-blue state and now he seeks the nomination of a Republican Party that has since moved to the right. He has had to change his ideological clothes, and conservatives have seen this and wondered which Romney is real.

These problems will dog him in the general election, assuming he is the nominee. Yet he will have tremendous advantages. The Real Clear Politics average shows that nearly three-quarters of the country believes the nation is “on the wrong track.” Unseating an incumbent president is no easy task, but the electorate is manifestly receptive to the notion.

A Romney general-election effort would draw its oomph from the deep fear, shared not only by Republicans but by a growing number of independents, that despite his appalling performance, President Obama could win re-election. For those of us who share that fear, pulling the lever for Romney would be an easy choice. The notion that conservatives will be halfhearted in the drive to end the Obama presidency is laughable.

Romney helped his cause last week by pledging major spending cuts and endorsing a Paul Ryan-style “premium support” plan for Medicare. Unlike Ryan’s plan, Romney’s would add traditional Medicare to the menu of policies eligible for subsidized premium support.

Romney hasn’t said how he would calculate the formula for annual raises in the premium-support amount — a pivotal consideration — yet he has recognized the need to shift from open-ended entitlements to fixed government contributions, a key element in any program to contain Washington’s spending explosion.