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One of the questions I've been grappling with as I listen to some of my more anti-Mitt Romney conservative friends (a general reminder: Mitt is one of my least desired candidates of the current crop) is that "the establishment" has chosen him. While I agree that the more entrenched, blue-blood Republican types see a northeastern Republican who is not a social conservative crusader much more palatable, I have admittedly struggled with the idea that conservatives have rejected the guy only to be overruled by the establishment.
I think this perception is leading to the false belief that the Tea Party - for all its successes - have failed in their mission to take over the Republican Party and chart a new direction for the Party. All that remains to be seen. Let's take a look at whether the fiscal hawks that the Tea Party elevated to Congressional leadership in 2010 gain influence or lose it in 2012. Let's see if the next president moves in the direction of budget cuts or more spending. Then we'll talk about the lasting success or failure of the Tea Party.
But one of the curious things about the argument that Romney is 100% establishment and is being forced upon kicking and screaming conservatives was expressed in a pretty interesting column written by Mona Charen. She argues:
The Republican Establishment, like the "international community," is more of a figment than a reality. Whom did the so-called establishment support in 2008? Do conservative voters believe that Republican elites somehow engineered the selection of the least loyal and reliable Republican in the U.S. Senate? And how did that work exactly? John McCain was considered the frontrunner in early 2007. Yet by the summer he was languishing in the polls and so broke that he was forced to take out loans. Was it the establishment that earned McCain the nomination or was it the fact that Rudolph Giuliani ran a terrible campaign, Fred Thompson never got airborne, and Mike Huckabee undermined Mitt Romney's Iowa sling-shot strategy?
What about 2000? Did the establishment pick George W. Bush? It might seem so, based on primogeniture. But the comfort with Bush came from the grassroots up, not from the top down. Bush himself acknowledged that he was enticed to run not by fat cats at a private club but by the polls. Yes, he was certainly aided in the money chase by his pedigree. But if money determined the outcome of primaries, we'd have been treated to the nomination of Phil Gramm in 1996.
Speaking of 1996, Dole won the primaries because his opponents ? Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes ? were not perceived as presidential and carried only six states between them compared with 44 for the winner. (Memo to file: Find better candidates.)
In 1988 and 1992, the Republican Party nominated George H. W. Bush. Was that the work of the establishment or of Ronald Reagan, who elevated Bush by choosing him as VP?
These are good questions. While I disagree strongly with Charen if she suggests that there is no "Republican establishment," I find her assessment of recent primaries to be instructive. It isn't that there is no Republican establishment. It's that they are losing right now. The Tea Party and conservative resurgence has reshaped the ground upon which this primary has been fought. The candidates who are more appealing to the moderates of the Republican Party (the establishment), are touting their conservatism and competing with one another to win over conservative voters. Even Romney, who has an essential lock on the moderates (who are they going to choose instead, Huntsman?), is competing for conservative voters.
They are all talking about austerity. They are all talking budget cuts, balancing the books, tax reform, entitlement reform, and repealing ObamaCare. Historically, those are not topics the "establishment" types would take on. And don't anticipate any reversal on those positions once the general election rolls around. Though it is typical to run right in the primary and back towards the center in the general, you won't see any of these candidates abandoning these pledges should they get the nomination.
The Tea Party and staunch conservative base had great success in 2010 and made necessary changes. But they weren't done. In 2012, electing a candidate like Mitt Romney who has pledged to repeal ObamaCare and will be working with an increasingly conservative Congress to get our financial house in order would not be a failure. The failure would come if that base threw a fit that they got stuck with an "establishment" guy and accepted a second term of Obama. Romney may not be the conservative champion that some hoped would take the mantle so that they could relax a little. But if he is a politician, he will go in the direction that is winning and setting the agenda. If the Tea Party and conservative movement can continue to represent that winning ideology, they may so successfully alter the political landscape that their views become the "establishment" when it's all said and done. That's the goal.