Make no mistake about it. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is quickly becoming the GOP “establishment” candidate for president in 2008. And that may not be such a great thing.
First, a little background on what I mean by the “Republican establishment.” In the 1960s, this clique was known as the Rockefeller Republicans. In 1976, they were the big money and political influence behind incumbent President Gerald Ford’s successful effort to fend off a challenge by Ronald Reagan. In 1980, this same group split. Some backed John Connelly and others George H.W. Bush. But few if any of them were on the team of the man who would emerge victorious that year and become an icon — Reagan.
Even so, having this officially unofficial group behind you — the cadre of conservative kingmakers that I like to call the “Too Cool for School Group” — can also prove a recipe for success.
The most recent success of this “moneyed” and connected collection of Republicans was George W. Bush’s muscling past John McCain in 2000. Also, they had earlier backed President Bush’s father as he maintained control of the White House for the GOP by succeeding Reagan.
So the establishment candidate sometimes wins and sometimes falls flat on their face. The latest example of the latter was Texas Sen. Phil Gramm in 1996. The Republican powerbrokers backed his unsuccessful run for the presidency.
Nowadays, I can certainly see why this powerful force in GOP politics is attracted to Mitt Romney. I spent time with the governor recently. I found him to be well-spoken, attractive and versed in many of the issues that public opinion surveys reveal as near and dear to the hearts of voters.
A prime example is his aggressive approach to health care. He advocates an innovative method that would provide both more freedom for and accountability from Americans.
But no one issue will win a presidential nomination. Consider that another potential 2008 candidate, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, also makes health-care transformation a centerpiece of his public pitch.
The path to the presidency is not only long, it’s twisted. And that makes it up for grabs.
The Republican “in crowd” is attracted to Romney because they feel comfortable with him. Like President Bush, Romney has a long Republican pedigree — his father was Michigan Gov. George Romney. He has an impressive resume of business leadership, exemplified by his heading up the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. And he’s proved his ability to sell the GOP in the notoriously liberal Democratic state of Massachusetts.
Trust me. I know these people. Mitt Romney is just their kind of guy. And they desperately want someone “like them.” Alternately, they’re terrified of, for example, John McCain because he is far too independent for their liking.
Similarly, they view Gingrich much as they, or their predecessors, viewed Reagan — as an iconoclastic “troublemaker.”
With Virginia’s George Allen now fighting to keep his Senate seat, the establishment’s inner circle is afraid that his nascent presidential campaign — like that of Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist — may never get off the ground.
Rudy Giuliani might once have been their choice, but they fear his independent streak and also some potential skeletons in the closet.
With midterm elections upon us, presidential campaign teams are starting to be assembled. Of course, no one is admitting to be running for president.
Romney told me only that he is keeping all options open and will decide after the fall elections.
Sure thing, governor. And that must be why, in every state I visit, and with my every encounter with the “cool crowd,” everyone is talking about a Romney candidacy.
On the plus side, Romney would offer Republicans and the nation a fresh face not associated with the current White House nor with the party’s customary pool of budding leaders. And governors have a history of faring well in presidential contests.
What remains to be seen is whether Romney — a Mormon — will face an unspoken wall of bias against his religion, as Catholic John Kennedy did in 1960. Could he overcome that?
And what would the all-important Deep South states think about a moderate candidate from left-wing Massachusetts? By abandoning the South, the Republican Party could be abandoning its base. And that could spell curtains.
Also consider that in the late 1990s, George W. Bush had already been anointed as the successor for the Republican establishment. He was elected by the American people only after he was “elected” by the party’s elite. It’s an open question whether these insiders should have stood aside and let GOP voters make their own choice.
Maybe they should this time.