There’s a good chance I’ve been misleading a lot of people for a long time. For about a year now, I’ve been telling all who would listen that the Republican tradition of nominating the next guy in line wouldn’t hold with 2012 and Mitt Romney.
Two trends informed my judgment. First, the conservative wing of the party that has always disdained ideologically questionable establishment candidates seems to have become dominant within GOP ranks with the rise of the Tea Party. Second – despite my best efforts – I’ve never been able to find someone who is actually excited about Romney.
Yet today I fear that this analysis may be coming apart at the seams. My reasoning: the force of the Tea Party isn’t particularly potent unless it’s unified – and even then a Tea Party-favored candidate would still need crossover appeal to more conventional Republicans in order to be a safe bet for the presidential nomination.
It looks increasingly to me like no candidate that fits that profile is in the race. Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels were both reasonable prospects, but they were, alas, not forthcoming. The closest fit among those who have jumped in is Michele Bachmann (of whom I’m rather fond), but there seems to be an ineffable unease about her as a presidential nominee among the GOP rank-and-file. Talking to Republicans about Bachmann reminds me a bit of talking to Democrats about Howard Dean in 2004. There’s a lot of “I like her … but ...”
Lately, the contention among many conservatives has become that Rick Perry will be the one to bridge the Tea Party and the establishment. I’ll wait for his entry into the race to pass judgment on that proposition, but if it proves true it creates a difficulty: unless either Perry or Bachmann flames out, Tea Party types will be less unified, not more. And that divided opposition redounds to the benefit of one Mitt Romney, happily taking up residency at the median of the Republican Party. If this sounds slightly familiar, it’s because a similar split between Romney and Mike Huckabee gave us John McCain in 2008.
Bottom line: it seems to me that either Bachmann or Perry (assuming he gets in) has to take a mortal blow either early in the primaries of before the voting even starts – because unless we get Romney one on one against a bona fide conservative … I’m afraid we may get the next guy in line.