Republican orthodoxy and primary survival skills
TPM reader JR claims Rick Perry shouldn’t be counted out yet:
I think it’s quite easy to see how he’s not done.
Most Republicans simply don’t want Mitt Romney. The MSNBC First Read blog again this morning pointed out that fact, noting that Romney’s polling doesn’t improve despite the competition soiling itself.
I’m not sure how much I buy into this. Conservatives may not be satisfied with Mitt Romney, but they weren’t necessarily satisfied with John McCain, either. I remember thinking that the McCain campaign was dead in the water at roughly this point in the campaign four years ago. I didn’t think McCain was conservative enough for the nomination. His support for immigration reform, while a mainstream Republican position during the Bush years, became a liability. McCain himself blamed his support of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 for his summer fundraising woes in an interview with Ryan Lizza:
“It was immigration” that hurt his campaign, he said when he continued, after a series of apologies on both sides. “I understand that. I was told by one of the pollsters, ‘We see real bleeding.'”
Did John McCain’s heterodoxy on immigration sink his candidacy? Of course it didn’t, mainly because the other candidates didn’t really stand to gain from it. His main challenger, Mike Huckabee, supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants as Governor of Arkansas. Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson ran lackluster, second-tier campaigns. Romney’s record on immigration, like his record on most issues, was all over the map.
In 2011, of course, it’s Rick Perry on the receiving end of criticism for his immigration record. This, by itself, does not mean that Rick Perry will not be the Republican nominee. What does seem to be hurting Perry is the laziness of his candidacy – he seems uninterested in preparation, seeming to have expected coronation as nominee with minimal campaigning effort. I think Perry is suffering a short-term setback over his immigration record, but the long-term damage will come if he isn’t able to mount a proper case for himself. His performance in the past two debates has done little to help that.
Romney and Perry both have skeletons in their closets – Romney on health care, Perry on immigration. When Romney is attacked on health care, he has shown himself capable of pushing back and making a case for his health care reform bill while calling for the repeal of Obama’s. I don’t think this strategy will play if Romney makes it to the general election, but I think it’s sufficient for surviving the primary. When Perry is attacked on immigration, he gets flustered.
I doubt Romney will ever convince the Republican base that he is truly one of them, but I think the same was essentially true of McCain. After McCain’s surge to the nomination, the party leadership and electorate was solidly behind him. McCain was not the first choice of the majority of Republican voters, and neither is Romney. Neither was John Kerry in 2004. As long as Perry keeps running like someone indifferent to winning the nomination, I don’t think Romney’s stagnant poll numbers should concern the Romney campaign. I’ve thought for a while that Romney will do well enough to survive the primary, and the party leadership and base will, after pining for an alternative, eventually conclude that their best chance at defeating President Obama lies with Romney.
Some have pointed to Herman Cain’s surge as a sign that Republicans are desperate for anyone but Romney (here is Jonathan Chait), but Perry would be the obvious source of conservative anyone-but-Romney votes. Cain’s lack of elected office experience means he hasn’t had to stake out any moderate positions.
The Republican nominee is going to be someone who has, at some point in the past, made a decision as Governor that conflicts with the current hard-right agenda of the Republican electorate. Romney and Perry each have issues that place them at odds with the current conservative orthodoxy, enough to effectively cancel each other out. When Perry puts out an ad about Romney’s health care bill, Romney attacks Perry as soft on immigration, and vice versa. My opinion is that Mitt Romney’s health care record and Rick Perry’s immigration record will not be fatal blows to their respective candidacies. It’s how they prove themselves capable of handling the controversies that will matter more. So far, Romney has done the better job.