One of the most important recent pieces of news in the 2012 primaries in my view was the announcement that Freedomworks, a tea-party affiliated group advocating limited government has announced that it will no longer oppose Romney. This comes at the same time that Romney won a strong victory in the Illinois primary and won the endorsement of Jeb Bush. I think this is a good time to consider the political position Romney would be in if he won since it is now abundantly clear that he is the likeliest GOP nominee.
There are two possible explanations for Freedomworks’ move. The first is that very conservative tea party activists believe Romney’s attempts to portray himself as a “severe conservative” over the course of the primary. Exit polls from the latest primary state of Illinois easily refute that notion. In a state where Romney greatly outspent Santorum and had a superior organization, Romney still lost those voters who consider themselves very conservative. This happened despite math which made it very likely that Romney would emerge as the nominee and a steady drumbeat of party elders and pundits claiming that Romney had the nomination locked up.
The second explanation is that Freedomworks and those it represents want to gain leverage over Romney should he win. The organization will be able to say that it galvanized conservative voters for Romney that put him over the top. When he is in the White House, the group will be able to demand that Romney support aspects of its agenda lest he lose their support in the 2016 election.
Romney will definitely be in a tough spot politically if he is elected. Many Democrats will oppose him out of partisan motives. In order to have a solid base of support he will have to try to govern as a real conservative so that he can at least count on consistent Republican support. He will not have the luxury of seeking the center in the same way that other recent Presidents have. The Republican base of conservative voters simply doesn’t trust him enough to assume good faith in compromises he pursues given his track record. He risks becoming a “man without a party.”
With the Democrats opposing him and Republicans suspicious of his every move if he compromises too much, Romney will have a difficult time enacting any legislative agenda. He would be a lame duck early in his term, vulnerable both to a Democratic candidate in the next election, and possibly, a primary challenge from a fellow Republican.
In the minds of some very conservative voters after all, there is barely a difference between Romney and Obama. After all, both supported healthcare plans with an individual mandate, legalized abortion, and the infamous (in their view) TARP program. The difference is that they can get leverage over Romney while they will never have such leverage over Obama. As often is the case in Presidential elections, Romney happens to be the lesser of two evils.
This does raise one truly interesting possibility. Perhaps Romney will be able to portray himself as above the fray of petty partisan politics. He might be able to use the fact that neither party’s partisans like him to make a case to the independents and centrists that he is finally the one to represent them. But alas, independents and centrists are not terribly well represented in Congress. Rabid Republicans and devoted Democrats are.