Mitt Romney was an unprincipled politician. He was an opportunist and a pragmatist. Still, it’s a pity that Romney won’t be running for president in 2016. A Mitt RomneyJeb Bush fight might have split the Republican “establishment” and allowed an anti-establishment candidate to win. But Romney could have done more than split one faction of the Republican party. He could have nudged the platform of the Republican party’s establishment faction closer to the beliefs of grassroots conservative votersand closer to the views of the general public.
The Republican “establishment” is best understood as the party’s core of right-leaning business owners and executives. In the aftermath of Romney’s 2012 defeat, the establishment decided that the solutions to the party’s problems were to deemphasize social issues and to embrace comprehensive immigration reform (a euphemism for upfront legalization of unauthorized immigrants, delayedpossibly permanently delayedinternal enforcement, and expanded low-skill immigration).
It is easy to describe the Republican establishment in super-villain terms. You have Republican superstar lobbyist Haley Barbour heading up a Mark Zuckerbergfunded group called “Americans for a Conservative Direction” that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform while Haley Barbour’s lobbyist nephew Henry Barbour helps write the Republican National Committee report that advocates that the GOP adopt . . . comprehensive immigration reform. Describing the Republican establishment in terms of Washington lobbyist greed is easy, but it is also incomplete. The Republican establishment has roots throughout the United States.
Jeb Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are often presented as the presumptive candidates of this establishment, but, to get a sense of the Republican establishment’s reach, perhaps it makes sense to look at the three most prominent Republican politicians from Wisconsin. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, is from Wisconsin, and it was during his tenure that the Republican National Committee issued the report recommending that the GOP deemphasize social issues and embrace comprehensive immigration reform (without noting any flaws in Romney’s economic agenda). Paul Ryan, representative from Wisconsin and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, is also a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. Fine, Priebus and Ryan are in a sense Washington guys.
But you don’t have to have ever worked in Washington to share the establishment’s perspective. It turns out that Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s political instincts are pretty close to those of Ryan and Priebus. This gets to the way in which the Republican establishment is more than just the Washington-based lobbyists and consultants. The opinions, priorities, and biases of the establishment are replicated all over the country in meetings between politicians and local business owners and executives. It’s these opinions that Scott Walker embraced when he said that, if there were too many illegal immigrants, the country should make it easier for more people to immigrate. (The country begs to differ with Walker.)
The Republican establishment sometimes mistakes its own priorities for sound electoral politics. When Representative Renee Ellmers announced her opposition to a popular bill banning abortions after twenty weeks, she claimed it was because she was afraid the bill would hurt Republicans among young voterseven though young voters supported the bill more than other age groups. As House Republicans put the abortion ban aside, a House Republican began speaking on behalf of fracking. Washington Free Beacon reporter F. Bill McMorris noted in frustration that fracking was less popular than banning late-term abortion.
The debacle of the twenty-week abortion ban led conservative writer Timothy Carney to write an article titled “If Republicans won’t fight for late-term babies, what will they fight for?” On Twitter, left-wing blogger Matthew Yglesias replied “high income people who want to pay lower taxes? Fossil fuel extraction companies?”
Carney and Yglesias have hit upon a painful truth, but not the whole truth. It’s true that there are nominally pro-life people in the Republican party who think that an abortion ban (even a popular abortion ban) is divisive but who imagine comprehensive immigration reform (as defined by the employer class) and fracking to be the very stuff of politics. But they are not the only people on the center-right, and the Republican party has proven responsive to other groupsas long as those other groups are willing to stand up, organize, and fight within the party. It was opposition from the Republican grassroots that prevented the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, despite the alliance between the Republican establishment and almost the entire institutional Democratic party. It will be grassroots conservatives who might cut short the congressional career of Representative Ellmers. States have enacted laws restricting late-term abortions. John Roberts and Sam Alito are Supreme Court Justices.
The Republican establishment’s greatest strength is not its money or its sophistication. It is its ability to create a shared climate of opinion among the plausible GOP presidential contenders. If all of the Republican candidates with a realistic chance at the nomination sincerely share the same views and priorities, the establishment wins regardless of who gets the nomination. The Republican establishment might get a scare from a Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee Rand Paul, or Ben Carson, but such candidates don’t get the nomination.
That is where Mitt Romney could have been so useful. While a member of the Republican business classes, he was, above all, an opportunist. As a candidate, Romney could have found those places where the Republican establishment candidates differed from the median Republican voter. In his presidential campaigns, Romney was well prepared and precise in his attacks and he could not have been plausibly dismissed as a crank or an extremist.
In the 2012 cycle, Romney was able to destroy Rick Perry not only because Perry was ill-prepared, but also because, on some issues, Perry was on the wrong side of Republican opinion and Romney had the skill to drive the points home. The 2016 campaign could use a similarly well-prepared candidate who could remind the GOP establishment candidates that their priorities and preferences are not always those of the Republican party more generally (or America).
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.