“You’re going to get booed,” Romney strategist Stuart Stevens recalls warning his candidate as they watched a television in a nearby trailer and assessed what awaited in the hall.
The former Massachusetts governor responded with . . . a big, deep chortle.
“It’s happened before,” he said.
But that night Perry was the one who got the catcalls, for being insufficiently tough on illegal immigrants. Romney was at his best, steady and confident as he tore apart Perry’s contention that the sacrosanct Social Security system is a “Ponzi scheme.” He left the stage having done what he wanted, which was to sow doubts that the swaggering Texan was the best candidate to go the distance against President Obama.
Romney wasn’t out to make Republicans love him. He was out to prove to them that they didn’t have to.
That was the thing his more flamboyant rivals failed to understand about the complicated relationship Romney has with his party. It was why their constant attacks on his past apostasies, the biggest being the Obama-like health care law he passed in Massachusetts, failed. Not even Romney’s own limits as an orator and campaigner tripped him up.
“Republicans convinced themselves he was acceptable, if not exciting,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, another GOP primary contender who enjoyed a brief reign at the top of the polls. “His Teflon was ‘I can beat Obama,’ and Republicans said, ‘That is enough for me.’ ”
The base’s pragmatism, even in the dogmatic tea party era, was underestimated by everyone who ran against Romney, “including by me,” Gingrich said.
But it is also true that this year, the name at the top of the ticket is not what defines the GOP identity as it has at times in the past. Some presidential candidates reshape their parties, as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992, George W. Bush in 2000.
Romney fits more in the category of those who, with more mixed success, have run as true standard-bearers. Think Walter Mondale in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996. The Republican brand these days is stamped on Capitol Hill. Romney shows no sign of setting himself apart from that agenda, as unpopular as it is among independent and swing voters.
Months before Romney tapped Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for his presidential ticket, he endorsed the House Budget Committee chairman’s controversial fiscal blueprint, which includes a plan to drastically overhaul Medicare. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist predicted: “If Romney is president, he will sign a bill that looks very much like Ryan, and we will call it ‘the Romney revolution.’ ”