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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Romney and Republican History

The GOP is a conservative party, but yesterday it nominated a former "Massachusetts moderate" whose conservative clothes still have the tags on them. Mitt Romney is no anomaly, however. He is following a well-worn path.

Of the Republican presidential nominees of the past half-century, only two (Goldwater and Reagan) have had deep roots in the conservative movement. The rest have won the nomination by accommodating conservatives. They might not have been the movement's first choice, but they moved just enough to the right to overcome or co-opt conservative challenges.

Richard Nixon set the pattern in 1968. Although he had once voiced misgivings about "Buckleyites," he courted them in the campaign, winning William Buckley's endorsement. (Goldwater also preferred Nixon to Reagan.) In his fight for the nomination, he sought the support of conservative Southerners, most notably Strom Thurmond. At least some of his rhetoric took a rightward turn: in addition to liberal Ray Price, he hired conservative speechwriters Pat Buchanan and Bill Gavin.

After Nixon's fall, Gerald Ford seemed to shift left by naming former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president. But that choice was so unpopular within the party that he effectively dumped Rockefeller. Bowing to conservative critiques of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Ford also acceded to platform language critical of detente.

George H.W. Bush worked hard to shore up his right flank. He went to great lengths to woo religious conservatives, winning over such figures as Jerry Falwell. That support was crucial in containing a strong challenge from Pat Robertson. He also took up economic conservatism ("Read my lips:  no new taxes.") and used the tax issue to attack Robert Dole from the right. Dole learned his lesson, and in the 1996 race, he famously said: "I'm willing to be another Ronald Reagan, if that's what you want." The younger Bush also grasped the Reagan mantle, talking more about the Gipper than his own father. And four years ago, John McCain shifted ground on issues such as immigration.

For conservatives, of course, this history is sobering. Nixon and both Presidents Bush disappointed them in major ways. Would Romney be different?  And will the next nominee be an establishment Republican who gets some conservative support -- or a conservative who wins some establishment support?