Conservatives fought tooth-and-nail to defeat Mitt Romney – and tomorrow, they’ll vote for him anyway.
“I’ve even heard some people complain that they weren’t excited about Mitt Romney,” Herman Cain said to conservatives Sunday in a campaign commercial. “Get over it.”
It’s a dramatic reversal from just a year ago, when Cain led the conservative opposition against Romney. “I don’t think he’s a staunch conservative,” said the Tea Party icon, who held a two point lead in the Republican primaries.
But Cain is no outlier. He’s just the most prominent of a large class of Republicans who criticize their candidates as insufficiently conservative, but vote for them on Election Day.
Holding Republicans accountable
On the cusp of the 2010 elections, Tea Party activists described their movement as a check on a Republican Party that had betrayed its conservative principles.
“The beauty of the Tea Party movement is watching it hold Republicans accountable,” deceased publisher Andrew Breitbart told Reason.com at a “9/12 Tea Party Rally” in 2010. “These people are not going to stop holding their government and elected officials accountable, especially those that claim to represent their values.”
Those activists rewarded conservative nominees in 2010, sending Tea Party candidates like Rand Paul and Ron Johnson to the Senate. And they punished candidates they deemed insufficiently conservative, like Bob Bennett and Charlie Crist, defeating them in primaries and in the general election.
But as 2012 approached, media figures like Breitbart began to call for compromise.
“None of these people is perfect,” he said of Romney in a February Buzzfeed interview.
“From my perspective, there are too many people holding the conservative movement to an impossible post-2009 Tea Party standard,” Breitbart said.
If anything distinguished the Tea Party from other political factions, it was their willingness to vote against unacceptable conservatives. When Republicans pull the lever for Mitt Romney on Tuesday, they’ll bring that brief tradition to an early end.
Another election, another compromise
A centrist politician polls low among conservatives, but manages to win the Republican nomination by splitting his opponents, making grand promises about his electability – and warning of certain doom should Barack Obama win.
It’s a familiar scenario to most conservatives, because it’s exactly what happened in 2008. Senator John McCain – with approval ratings in the GOP often below 20 percent – defeated conservative favorites like Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, but suffered a catastrophic defeat to President Obama.
The Republican Party has been doing this for decades: forcing conservatives to choose between a “compromise” centrist candidate, or a Democrat.
Back in 1988, establishment Republicans called on their base to vote against movement conservative Pat Robertson. They backed moderate candidate George H.W. Bush, who distanced himself from his predecessor, conservative legend Ronald Reagan, by promising a “kinder and gentler nation.”
Bush won that election – and then reneged on his famous promise of “no new taxes.”
Conservatives punished him for the betrayal, defecting en masse to independent candidate Ross Perot in 1992. But that would be the last time they successfully challenged their party.
Senator Bob Dole – a classic establishment figure if ever there was one, the Senate Majority Leader and America’s oldest first-time nominee – defeated archconservative Pat Buchanan in 1996, and then lost to incumbent President Bill Clinton later that year.
The GOP reclaimed the White House in 2000, but campaign handlers ran Bush as a moderate “compassionate conservative” to the left of iconic conservative opponents like Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes. Conservatives supported Bush’s anti-terrorism efforts, but became increasingly disillusioned with his deficit spending and expansion of government programs.
Obama calls their bluff
President Obama will undoubtedly win re-election Tuesday, as I wrote previously for the Baltimore Post-Examiner.
But conservatives know that the President already has won a larger battle: by forcing Republicans, for the sake of electability, to move away from the right.
“We’re pushing them to the left,” radio personality Rush Limbaugh complained in January.
Romney found himself under attack that month by Newt Gingrich for his role in Bain Capital – a line of criticism embraced openly by the Obama campaign.
“What is Romney supposed to do to defend? He’s gotta move left if he’s gonna defend himself from this stuff,” Limbaugh said. “That’s not what we want.”
The Tea Party has always promoted itself as a movement of principle, above the petty compromises that plague the Republican establishment and so-called “politics as usual.”
But Obama has grasped a crucial insight about the American right: for all their talk of principle, they will abandon it completely in the hope of a short term win in the White House.
History will almost certainly credit President Obama for destroying the Tea Party once and for all. But when conservatives vote for Romney tomorrow, they’ll know exactly who to blame: themselves.
Please take our presidential poll on the right side of the homepage. You might be surprised who is winning.