Republican candidates have conformed to the needs of a vastly conservative primary electorate ever since the party rejected Romney’s father, George, in 1968; his failed presidential campaign represented an early turning point in the decline of moderate Republicanism. Mitt Romney’s contortions to fit the conservative mold make for a poignant coda to a precedent set by George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain before him.
All of those eventual nominees, to varying but significant degrees, adopted the conservative ideology of their insurgent rivals while inheriting the palatable aura — or in Romney’s case, the lantern jaw — of their moderate forebears. While a Romney nomination may vindicate the family name, it would also complete the conservative eclipse of his father’s moderate vision.
History has compressed the elder Romney’s campaign to his woeful explanation of why he was for the Vietnam War before he was against it (because of “brainwashing” by generals, he said). But at the time, his fiscal conservatism, self-made Midwestern values and emphasis on civil rights set him apart from the party’s fading East Coast liberal wing, represented by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller; the surging conservatism of Reagan; and the ideological flexibility of Richard Nixon. Among them, Romney stood as a standard-bearer of moderation in a party that had begun its long march to the right.
“George Romney was somebody who could have revived the moderate Republican fortunes within the party,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, a scholar who has studied the collapse of moderate Republicanism. “He might have made the party in his own image.”
Instead, image alone has proved to be the strongest legacy of Republican moderates. The centrist diaspora, which has lost the ideological battles but still controls important real estate in the Wall Street and Washington quarters of the GOP establishment, prefers a candidate to whom it can relate. Its members doubt that conservative firebrands and Southern fundamentalists, for all their grass-roots appeal, can win general elections.
“If there is an establishment, we look at who can be elected,” said Dole, the 1996 presidential nominee — who, it should be noted, handily lost the general election to Bill Clinton after overcoming protests on his right from Newt Gingrich and others. Today, he is supporting Mitt Romney. “My man is winning,” he said.
The establishment’s enduring belief that unmitigated conservatives cannot win the big one has its roots in the disastrous nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Not only did Goldwater’s hostile takeover of the GOP convention lead to a rout by Lyndon Johnson, but Republicans suffered in all levels of government, down to local sheriff’s races.