With nearly a year to go until the presidential primaries begin and over 20 months to go until the next presidential election, I’m taking a wait-and-see approach. My eighth grader asked me the other night if I would vote for Mitt Romney. I gave him a mushy “that depends” answer. This all arose from a social studies class discussion. He then asked me whether I would vote for several other candidates.
First off, I was impressed that my son even had a clue who these people were. I was blissfully unaware about such things when I was that age. Perhaps this is indicative of the celebrity status that politics has achieved since then. For a couple of the candidates my son mentioned, I was able to confidently tell him I would under no circumstances vote for them. But I found that for most of those on his list, I could only give qualified answers.
Part of this is because I have lived long enough to know that things change. Circumstances change. People change. More information becomes available. My perceptions change. And whether I would vote for a particular candidate or not depends greatly on what choices are available to me at the time of the election. Had my son asked me how I would vote if the election were held today, I might have answered differently.
Still, early opinion helps shape the debate and fuels what type of information is gathered and presented. It is possible that my wait-and-see approach fails to contribute much to that debate. There are plenty of people out there weighing in on the various candidates. And I think that’s a healthy thing.
But I must say that I am surprised by the number of conservatives that strongly oppose a given candidate. Every single one of them has provided plenty of fodder for developing a rational opposition. But I am surprised at how strongly some state their opposition. It seems to me that they are failing to allow for the inevitable changes that will occur over the next 20 months.
For example, I have made it no secret that I have some issues with Mitt Romney. And I’m not alone. There are plenty of conservatives that have well founded reservations. But some of them are vehement in their opposition to Mitt. What seems odd to me about this is that if Mitt is the eventual GOP nominee, many of these same people will end up supporting him — some of them enthusiastically. I have issues, but can I say that I would never vote for him? I’m not ready to go there.
Christian conservative commentator James Bopp says in this article that conservatives shouldn’t be so quick to misjudge Mitt’s seemingly recent conservative conversion. But Bopp’s argument that Mitt is just a closet conservative that is now coming out in the open doesn’t inspire much conservative confidence. After all, conservatives admire Ronald Reagan for saying what he meant and sticking to it. They don’t admire Bill Clinton for saying whatever he thought people wanted to hear while harboring other intentions.
But wait. Reagan (St. Ronald to some conservatives) was rather complex himself. He had once been a Democrat. He signed the nation’s most liberal abortion bill when he was governor of California. He had been divorced. And he was famously lax on illegal immigration. But when he said that he had changed his stripes on issues over the years, he came across as both passionate and genuine about it. I’m not sure that Romney scores well on either of these points right now. Eloquent, yes. Maybe even passionate in some instances. But he’s got work to do on genuineness.
Conservative columnist Kathy Lopez makes a valid point in this article, however, when she asserts that Romney is a better fit for the conservative base than GOP frontrunners McCain and Giuliani. Reason and history dictate that both of these candidates will hit a significant rough spot sometime before the primary election cycle is complete. We’ll see then how they continue to rank with conservatives.
And for what it’s worth, I disagree with Jonah Goldberg on his beer test slant. Even he admits it’s not a proven theory, but it goes like this. The candidate with whom the average person could imagine sitting down together with for a beer has a political advantage with voters. Goldberg suggests that McCain and Giuliani probably rank the highest among all of the announced candidates from either party. Mitt is too polished, he says. Goldberg sort of has a point. My guess is that George W. Bush would easily have beaten John Kerry on this score in 2004.
While personal appeal is undeniably important, people aren’t looking for someone they think is just like them. Most voters will admit they would make a lousy president. Rather, voters are looking for someone they can look up to — someone that has leadership qualities they admire. This is where Mitt’s polished shine will likely pay off.
But I think Lopez also strikes a chord with many conservatives when she quotes GOP pollster Robert Moran as saying, “The Republican candidates are good Americans and we shouldn’t diminish their qualifications, but at some point there will be a critical mass of thoughtful conservatives asking ‘Who else do we have?’ I hope that this question doesn’t come too late.”
Moran is talking about second tier candidates. In recent history, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both rose from the second tier to win their party’s presidential nomination and ultimately the presidency. Some argue that the speed of information and the nature of media has changed so much in the last decade or so that it is no longer possible for a second tier candidate to rise up and clinch her/his party’s nomination this ‘late’ in the cycle.
I think that is pure poppycock. Yes, both parties have identified their first tier candidates and many of their lower tier candidates as well. Yes, the first tier candidates have built stronger campaign and fundraising machines earlier in the cycle than ever before. But there is still a lot of time left. There are still many unknowns. Any or all of the frontrunners could completely implode at various points along the line. A single significant domestic or international event or a combination of events could dramatically change the entire chemistry of the situation.
Would it be difficult for a second tier candidate to rise to the first tier in either major party? Sure. But it’s not impossible. In fact, at this point I would argue that it is even likely to happen in at least one of the parties, from a statistical viewpoint, given that the field is more open for both parties than it has been in years.
Is it entirely possible that Mitt could end up being the best choice conservatives have left next year. The conservatives that once vehemently opposed him but have since switched to support him will then be guilty of the same kind of thing they find so distasteful in Mitt today. But this is only one of a broad variety of scenarios that could end up playing out.
My advice to conservatives? Praise what you think is right, speak out about what you think is wrong, keep your options open, and don’t give up hope for something better — at least not yet.