ODD THING ABOUT our political process--in the immediate aftermath of your most devastating defeat, the system demands that you trot out and give a speech with all the peppiness and ebullience of someone who just won the lottery. It's an odd custom, and it has produced some strange spectacles. When forced to perform the ritual after a defeat in Iowa, Howard Dean transformed himself from a small state governor who had run a surprisingly strong presidential campaign to a national laughingstock.
Last night, it was Mitt Romney's turn to seize the spotlight in what had to be a moment of despair. Romney's made of sterner stuff than Dr. Dean, and gave one of his better speeches of the campaign. And he showed admirable bravery in promising to carry on.
But the Romney campaign suffered serious and likely mortal wounds last night. The trouble isn't so much that John McCain's delegate lead is insurmountable, although it is significant. And Romney's problem isn't that John McCain will get an enormous bounce out of yesterday's wins. This is the year of no bouncing.
Romney's problem is that the fully mature version of his campaign has faced the fully mature versions of the Huckabee and McCain campaigns all over the country. Romney hasn't done well. Although past performances don't necessarily guarantee the results of future contests, it's tough to picture what Romney can do to shake up the race and begin getting those extra votes he'll need in each future state to turn losses into victories.
Romney doesn't have to drop out. He can fight on if he wishes, and hope that he unearths the secret formula that has eluded him so far. He can also hang around hoping John McCain makes a blunder. But right now, it's almost impossible to imagine a path to the nomination for Romney. That being the case, he'll have to run a campaign that's cognizant of the fact that he's facing his party's likely standard-bearer.
Mike Huckabee's performance yesterday is one of the few things that can give Romney supporters a dollop of hope. Even though political junkies worship at the shrine of "The Narrative," the actual voters keep insisting on expressing their own opinions, and sometimes those opinions don't conform with the narrative. But once again, Romney's problem isn't a hostile media narrative, but a seeming inability to produce victories.
As for Huckabee's future prospects, he doesn't have a shot at the nomination. Even Romney has a more plausible path to victory. Huckabee does well in certain pockets of strength, but in the rest of the country he's an asterisk. At least Romney gets a decent amount of votes everywhere. Huckabee can't be the nominee, but his strong showing means he'll be around Republican politics for a while and likely a force.
AND THAT LEAVES John McCain. McCain has to be humble the next few weeks, and avoid the big misstep. But short of McCain blundering into a disaster, he will be the Republican nominee.
The pressing question this morning is what McCain can do to unite the party and motivate the conservative base. In a thoughtful piece, Washington Examiner editorial page editor Mark Tapscott puts it this way:
Here's the reality: Mitt Romney can't win the Republican nomination with the conservative support he has now, but John McCain can't win the White House with the conservative support he doesn't have now.
So the biggest decision facing McCain today is what is he willing to do to win the support of the millions of GOP conservatives without whose support he cannot hope to win in November? (Emphasis in original)
The consensus opinion is that McCain has to somehow rally the Republican base, and get busy extending olive branches. But that's a recipe for disaster.
When a candidate gets the nomination, he's supposed to tack to the middle. Insisting that McCain make a mad dash to the right to soothe bruised feelings of the past is insane. If McCain follows that path, he'll turn his underdog campaign into a hopeless one. It may pain conservatives to admit this, but McCain's positions on water-boarding and global warming are more popular than those held by the Republican mainstream. Unless we want McCain to diminish his chances at victory, we should be encouraging him further into the middle.
Also, it's not like McCain can find an olive branch long enough to appease his more vehement critics. The estimable Victor Davis Hanson came to McCain's defense yesterday, arguing, "The McCain animus apparently transcends ideology. He has admitted his mistakes on immigration, and would not raise taxes, while his ACU ratings are good, and his ADA/ACLU scores are lousy."
As usual, Hanson's analysis is spot on. McCain's critics on the right don't trust him. There's nothing that McCain can say or do in the next nine months that will make them trust him. A John McCain guarantee not to raise taxes will always be greeted with derisive grins in many corners. And there's nothing the senator can do to change that dynamic.
McCain's situation is somewhat similar to 1996 nominee Bob Dole's predicament. Dole never fired up conservatives, and everyone considered enthusiastic conservative support a must in the three way race that loomed. So Dole proposed the most sweeping and comprehensive tax cut package in the nation's history. And yet conservatives remained relatively indifferent to the Dole campaign, partly because few of them actually believed that President Bob Dole would be the biggest tax-cutter ever.
John McCain is who he is. John McCain also pretty much sewed up the nomination last night. He won it fair and square. Now conservatives have to decide whether he's preferable to the neo-McGovernism that's likely to emerge from the Democratic party. At a time of war, it should be an easy decision.
Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.