Mitt Romney brings out strong feelings among Republicans. Some see him as the conservative exemplar, the man who can return the party to its pro-business, fiscal conservative roots. Others see him as an “establishment RINO” who says what needs to be said in order to win a political election. Unfortunately for Romney, this division has now appeared on two separate issues: abortion and health care. That suggests a larger problem with Romney that is worth exploring in detail.
To understand Romney’s dilemma fully, we have to go back deep into the history of the Republican party, to the historical split between the Northeastern, moderate wing and the Midwestern, conservative base. This cleavage dominated the first 25 years of party politics after World War II. It predates the emergence of the South as a major player in the party, and it was also a time when Western Republicans tended to be more progressive, as opposed to today when they are usually (but not always) more conservative.
This is the Republican party of the 1940s and early 1950s. In this incarnation of the GOP, the Northeast dominated the party, thanks to the large cache of electoral votes up for grabs in New York State (a whopping 47 votes in 1948) as well as the moneyed interests in the region that financed the party’s campaign operation. Prior to the Great Depression, Northeastern Republicans actually tended to be more conservative on economic issues, but after FDR’s election, Northeastern voters shifted to the left, and Republicans in the region followed suit.
This gave the GOP of the 1940s and, to a lesser extent the 1950s, a decidedly moderate cast. Thomas Dewey – the moderate governor of New York – was the effective leader of this party, winning the nomination twice (1944 and 1948) and working behind the scenes in 1952 to secure the nomination for Dwight Eisenhower over “Mr. Republican,” Robert Taft of Ohio, who was the conservative darling before Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
This Northeastern dominance began to break down in the 1950s, as migration to the Sun Belt states combined with the Democrats losing their iron grip on the South created new, conservative strongholds in states like Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas. This led to a shift in the balance of power within the GOP, which is best exemplified by Richard Nixon, the Republican who always studiously positioned himself in the middle of the party. When he ran for the presidency in 1960, he cut a deal with Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York and new leader of the Northeastern GOP, dubbed the “Treaty of 5th Avenue,” in which Nixon agreed to pursue progressive policies during his tenure. In 1968, on the other hand, he cut a deal with the leaders of the conservative Republican South, Strom Thurmond and John Tower.
This shift in the balance of power explains why Dewey could twice win the GOP nomination in the 1940s while Rockefeller was a two-time loser in the 1960s, falling to Barry Goldwater and then Richard Nixon, both of whom won by pulling in support from the conservative base.
In the last 40 years, conservative dominance has been the way of the world in Republican presidential politics. The party has nominated some relatively moderate candidates, like Nixon, George Bush, and Bob Dole, but it was only after they had convinced enough Republican voters that they were sufficiently conservative.
In other words, a candidate aligned with the Northeastern, moderate wing of the party has not won a nomination since 1960, and there is no reason to expect that to change, barring some kind of once-in-a-century realignment of the two political parties. Northeastern Republicans are now junior partners in the party coalition. They cannot deliver their own states anymore, as the Democrats dominate them all except New Hampshire and Pennsylvania; meanwhile, conservatives in the Midwest, South, and West can deliver their states, and so they now basically run the show.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney, whose basic political problem is that he comes from the Northeastern wing of the party. Even his father, George Romney, was the presidential candidate that Nelson Rockefeller quietly backed in the early stages of the 1968 nomination battle. And Mitt, coming as he does from the liberal Bay State, was faced with a very difficult choice: either govern as a bona fide conservative and get nothing done as governor, or tack to the center as a Northeastern-style Republican and push the policy needle as far to the right as lefty Massachusetts (the only state to back McGovern in 1972!) would allow.
This is a near-impossible bind for any politician. It’s fair to say Romney was damned if he did (govern Massachusetts the way that state prefers and suffer with the conservative base) and damned if he didn’t (let Massachusetts grind to a halt, win the affection of the base, but take heat in the general election as a failed leader who put ideology over governance).
To Romney’s credit, he and his advisors clearly understand the nature of this problem, but unfortunately their solutions have not been very effective to date. In 2008, conservative opinion seemed genuinely split on whether Romney had a real change of heart on abortion. And now, even the tag of the Massachusetts health reform – “RomneyCare” – suggests that he has significant problems moving forward. His response to the health care dilemma, pushing the federalism argument, doesn’t seem to be going over very well.
I think it is far too early to start placing odds on any of the major would-be nominees, and Romney does strike me as a serious contender. Yet there is no doubt that Romney has a very serious problem. Sixty years ago, he would have been an easy, obvious choice for the Republican nomination. However, time has passed and the balance of power in the GOP has shifted decisively, leaving the Northeastern wing of the party on the outside looking in. That is Mitt Romney’s big political problem.