For months, conservatives and tea party activists have been searching for the "anti-Romney" to battle the actual Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination. Romney (R-MA) was declared the "establishment candidate" early on for picking up the early support of many long-time party insiders. He solidified his status as the establishment pick with the problematic fact that he spent his early political career running and governing as a moderate-to-liberal Republican on many issues. Oh, and he is from Massachusetts.
There is a constant clash in Republican politics between picking the most electable candidates for office versus picking the most ideologically pure candidates for office. Establishment choices are often moderate and boring. They play it safe as to not scare away swing voters with their conservatism. They also often lose. The two most recent establishment picks for President were John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, and Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP nominee. Both lost handily to their Democratic opponents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, grassroots activists and conservatives who are not part of the GOP machine prefer more ideologically pure candidates. After all, what good is a nominee if they are little better than their liberal opponent, they argue. Ronald Reagan is the prime example here. He was not the favorite of the Republican establishment, and in fact was deemed unelectable by them. He was not a "safe" choice. Yet he went on to win two landslide general elections that, on paper, insiders said he should not have won.
Rise of the Conservatives
Today, the Tea Party has risen within the Republican Party. Two years ago they took on the establishment and defeated the "safe" Republican choices and replaced them with their own. Long-serving Republican moderates were defeated in primaries to little-known conservative challengers. More importantly, many of the anti-establishment Republicans went on to win their general elections as well and their surge enabled the Republicans to take back control of the House of Representatives. Flowing from that, the grassroots hoped to see the same scenario play out in the 2012 Presidential election. Romney was the early "establishment pick" so now all that was left was for the grassroots to find his opponent.
So far, the number of anti-Romney candidates to come and go (and sometimes come back again) has included Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich. Yet as none of them could stick for more than a few weeks Romney remained, and always in the top two contenders. As each candidate surged and became vetted, it turned out each had as many negatives as the man they were trying to draw distinctions with.
Romney as Anti-Establishment
After watching the race unfold for months, I started to wonder: Is Mitt Romney the anti-Romney candidate? In reality, Romney is very different from past establishment choices like Bob Dole and John McCain. For starters, Mitt Romney is not a lifelong Washington politician. Far from it, Romney did not even run for office until he was in his forties. Dole and McCain had long and distinguished political careers and were always viewed as being "the next in line" when they won the GOP nominations for President. Even Romney's current three competitors (Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum) have spent decades in Washington either in government or profiting afterwards with their government connections. So while conservatives look for an outside-the-beltway candidate, it turns out that Mitt Romney is the only current candidate that doesn't emerge from D.C. insider circles.
Conservatives also value experience, either on an executive or business level. Both executive and business experience was lacking in the campaigns of past GOP establishment nominees as well as in the current field. That is, of course, except for Mitt Romney. In fact, Romney is the only candidate who has both solid business and executive experience. Lack of experience is what conservatives have blasted President Obama for lacking in 2008 and now point to in his perceived failures today. Romney clearly benefits in his ability to speak from the perspective of a self-made businessman.
Running as a Conservative
But there is of course one final element that has kept Mitt-Romney from being the anti-establishment choice: Conservatism. Mitt Romney ran as a liberal Republican while running for both Senator and Governor in Massachusetts. While Governor, his views started to take a hard right turn, and he has moved to the right ever since. Many conservatives do not buy into his conversion, and are rightfully skeptical. But Romney has done something that previous "anti-establishment" picks have not done: He is running as a conservative. John McCain was perfectly happy to be labeled a moderate. He even spent half of his time sounding less conservative than Barack Obama.
Usually, moderate candidates hit their conservative opponents for being out-of-touch and "too conservative." But if you isolate this election, Romney is not only running as far as he can from his moderate past but he is running further to the right than those who are trying to be the anti-him. Quite simply, Romney is out-flanking his closest challenger, Newt Gingrich, to the right on almost every issue. While Romney has been staunch on cracking down on illegal immigration, Gingrich actually attacked his position and has taken the more moderate, establishment tone on the issue.
In Iowa, Newt promised to continue ethanol subsidies, and inf Florida he promised the same for sugar. Romney came down against both. On entitlement reform, Romney has backed the top conservative choice, Paul Ryan's Roadmap. Newt came out against it and called it right-wing social engineering. On spending, Gingrich has proposed such absurdities as "Moon Colonies," an idea Romney called financially reckless. On the rest of the issues their ideas are mostly interchangeable.
The Final Takeaway
This primary season reminds me of a romantic Hollywood movie where the girl keeps telling her best guy friend about the search for the man of her dreams, and then in the end the girls realizes he has been there all along. If you believe that Romney's conservative conversion is real, then he is the perfect Tea Party and conservative outsider candidate. He is the only one who is not of Washington, D.C. with meaningful business and executive experience. And he is running further to the right than most of his opponents. But right now, many just don't believe him. Both the grassroots conservatives and the GOP power base believe they have Mitt Romney figured out. But then, maybe neither the establishment nor the conservative base has Romney quite figured out yet.