Washington D.C. -- From the American Conservative Union to the Young America’s Foundation, the exhibition hall at the 2008 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was abustle with the who’s who of rightwing politics. Only one display table stood conspicuously unmanned. On it was a single, ragged poster advertising “Romney in 2008.” It was a decidedly symbolic commentary on Romney’s presidential campaign, which came to a not-entirely-unexpected end here yesterday when the former Massachusetts governor withdrew from the race.
In accounting for his exit, Romney said that his main concern was the “War on Terror.” By staying in the race, Romney explained, “I would be making it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win…Frankly in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”
There is doubtless some truth to this selfless explanation. The consensus choice of the talk-radio set and a recent favorite of many of the conservative movement’s luminaries, Romney might have pushed on to this weekend’s caucus in Kansas, where he was endorsed by the head of the state’s Republican party. Equally, he might have fought on until next week’s “Potomac primaries” in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, where he was expected to do well in a number of conservative enclaves. At a minimum, his continued presence in the race would have forced John McCain defend his front-runner status. Instead, his withdrawal provides the GOP with a much-needed opportunity to come to terms with its likely nominee and to mobilize resources for what is sure to be an uphill struggle in the general election.
But there are other, equally relevant reasons for Romney’s departure. Ever since he poured over $1 million into radio and television ads to win the purely symbolic Iowa straw poll last August, Romney has relied on generous expenditures to pull him up where the polls had him down. In 2007, he spent $87 million on his campaign, including $35 million of his own estimated $250 million fortune. As the campaign stretched on, however, it became clear that Romney was getting insufficient bang for his buck. Underwhelming performances in the Super Tuesday primaries, where Romney lost southern states to the comparatively skinflint campaign of Mike Huckabee, and where his most prominent wins were in his “home” states of Utah and Massachusetts, only solidified the impression that his campaign was running on empty. It is not to discount the nobleness of his farewell remarks to say that Romney has made a virtue of necessity.
Could things have been different? Certainly it would have helped Romney’s case had the conservative establishment rallied to his aid earlier in the race. But any serious assessment of his campaign must note why that did not happen -- namely that, notwithstanding the conviction and zeal with which he is being hailed by some in the conservative movement, it was not at all apparent that he was, as radio talk show host Laura Ingraham generously introduced him at CPAC, the “the conservative’s conservative.”
Strikingly at odds with the image of Romney as rock-ribbed conservative was his background as Massachusetts’ governor. As Romney labored to cast himself as the true conservative in the race, newspapers and political opponents gleefully pointed out that on a whole host of issues -- abortion, gay rights, gun control, campaign finance reform, and the hot-button of immigration -- the governor’s past record did not always support his campaign rhetoric. It was no coincidence that one of the more popular personalities at last year’s CPAC was “Flip Romney,” the flip-flopping dolphin whose mock-advocacy for the governor summed up much of the grassroots sentiment at the time. And while some were forgiving of Romney’s changing course -- “For us, the most important question about a flip-flop is whether the movement is in the right direction,” noted National Review in its endorsement of the governor -- the fact that his conservative credentials were in doubt prevented him from benefiting from the movement’s support until it was too late.
To be sure, there were those who took up Romney’s cause early on. In his unapologetically laudatory book about Romney, A Mormon in the White House?, Hugh Hewitt answered the question with a definitive, “Yes.” Appealing to conservatives who “do not see a standard-bearer in the field,” Hewitt argued that the governor deserved to be their choice. Not only did he have the right instincts on a range of conservative issues, from protecting the unborn to safeguarding the judiciary, but he understood the stakes in the current war. “We know that there is not a single serious contender for the Democratic nomination who has evidenced anything resembling seriousness about the war,” Hewitt wrote, adding that a Democratic president “can indeed lose the war,” and must be denied the opportunity to try. It is an irony Hewitt scarcely could have anticipated when he wrote those words that his preferred candidate would invoke nearly identical language to explain why he was abandoning his quest for the White House.
What effect Romney’s withdrawal will have on the Republican race is as yet uncertain. On the one hand, his exit has inspired some party activists to declare against John McCain with a newfound fervor. Standing in the lobby of CPAC’s headquarters at the Omni Shoreham hotel yesterday, Virginia resident Bob Shoemaker held aloft an impromptu cardboard sign with the words “Join Republicans Against McCain” crudely scrawled in ball-point pen. “We just formed today,” Shoemaker explained. With Romney no longer a factor, he said, the need to oppose McCain, especially for his despised stand on immigration, was more urgent than ever. “Other things we can forgive, but amnesty -- that’s forever.”
But if hostility toward McCain remains, there are also signs of a glasnost between the GOP base and its presumptive nominee. That was most apparent during McCain’s speech before a conservative crowd here. McCain did not entirely escape jeering, particularly when he discussed his dissent on immigration. More significant about the speech, though, was how warmly it was received by the skeptical crowd. Without apologizing for his past deviations, McCain nonetheless urged his conservative detractors to consider his record in its entirety and, if not to admire him, then to accept this “imperfect servant” of his country as the party’s representative. If the sustained applause that interrupted his speech several times is any indication, many movement conservatives were at least prepared to try.
And so it ends for Mitt Romney. There will be no Mormon in the White House this time. Yet he leaves on a high note: his speech yesterday was among the more inspired that he has delivered during his campaign. Sadly for his supporters, it was also the last.