E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion writer January 18, 2012

Members of the Tea Party insisted they were turning the GOP into a populist, anti-establishment bastion. Social conservatives have long argued that values and morals matter more than money. Yet in the end, the corporate and economically conservative wing of the Republican Party always seems to win.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” View Archive

Thus was Mitt Romney so confident of victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary that he left the state briefly on Tuesday for a fundraiser in New York. And why not? The power of big money has been amplified in this campaign by the super PACs let loose by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and lax regulation.

You cannot watch the morning news shows in South Carolina without confronting an intricately confusing blitz of ads, some paid for by candidates, others by the supposedly independent PACs. One kind is indistinguishable from the other.

The nature of the ads shows why it would be a major upset were Romney to lose here. Although Romney’s opponents direct some of their fire his way, they are spending a fortune tearing each other apart. Rick Perry’s backers take on both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Ron Paul assails Gingrich and Santorum, too. Romney’s supporters have piled on with ads against Gingrich.

Gingrich flicks aside Santorum and Perry with faint praise in his speeches, as he did at an event here on Tuesday night, maintaining that “the only effective vote to stop Mitt Romney is Newt Gingrich.” And it does seem, from the polls and the buzz, that Gingrich is the only option whose momentum gives him at least an outside chance of getting by Romney. But Santorum and Perry are not giving way, which is why Romney could afford his side trip to Manhattan.

“People have treated Romney coming in first as a foregone conclusion and gone for second,” said Joel Sawyer, who consulted for Jon Huntsman and is now neutral. “I see that as a fundamentally flawed strategy. A very significant number of Republicans are looking for an alternative, but what Romney’s opponents have done is weaken each other.”

Bob McAlister, who served as the late Republican governor Carroll Campbell’s chief of staff, said a Romney victory would be the result of the conservative split, “not because Romney is so strong or well-liked by South Carolinians.”

The confusion was obvious at the well-attended event here for Gingrich. Interviewed as they stood in line to shake hands with the candidate, voter after voter said they mistrusted Romney — Scott Gilmer, an engineer, saw Romney as “a whole lot like Obama” — but many expressed indecision between Gingrich and Santorum.

What’s remarkable is that Romney seems to be closing in on a victory at the very moment when he is painting himself as the anti-populist and a tone-deaf economic elitist. Not only did he suggest Tuesday that he pays a low 15 percent tax rate (because most of his income derives from investments); he also dismissed the money he made from speaking fees as “not very much.”

It turned out that, over the year ending last February, speeches earned him more than $370,000. That’s not chump change for most folks.

Think about Romney’s rise in light of the overheated political analysis of 2010 that saw a Republican Party as being transformed by the Tea Party legions who, in alliance with an overlapping group of social and religious conservatives, would take the party away from the establishmentarians. If I had a dollar for every time the new GOP was described in those days as “populist,” I suspect I’d have more than Romney made from his lectures.

Certainly some of the movement’s failures can be attributed to a flawed set of competitors and the split on the right, especially Paul’s ability to siphon off a significant share of the Tea Party vote. That has made a consolidation of its forces impossible. (Romney may owe Paul an appointment to the Federal Reserve.)

But there is another possibility: that the GOP never was and never can be a populist party, that the term was always being misapplied, and that enough Republicans are quite comfortable with a Harvard-educated private-equity specialist.

“Romney is as establishment as they come,” said McAlister. For many conservatives, he added, a fall campaign between Romney and President Obama could thus be a choice between “which of the two establishments do you hate most.”

That’s not where the Tea Party’s promoters said we were headed.

ejdionne@washpost.com