After a career as a business executive, a handsome Mormon becomes the Republican governor of a Democratic state, then runs for President. He gets a reputation for flip-flopping and, as a moderate, has an uneasy relationship with the party’s conservative base.
It’s a pretty specific biography, yet it describes to a tee two men: Mitt Romney, one of the leading contenders for the GOP nomination, and his father George, who sought the same prize in 1968.
Yet while his father’s campaign fizzled out before Americans had taken down their 1967 calendars, Mitt solidified his frontrunner status this week with six wins (including a squeaker in Ohio) on Super Tuesday, the day ten states cast their ballots for the party’s nominee. Such results are particularly impressive given the volatile and still-crowded Republican field. Given his success, Mitt looks less like his father and more like Richard Nixon, the eventual nominee in 1968.
These widely divergent outcomes can be traced to how much the party has changed in four decades. In 1968, the Republican party housed conservatives but was not dominated by them. The phrase ‘liberal Republican’ was not yet an oxymoron, the epithet RINO (Republican In Name Only) not yet in popular circulation. Most Republicans, including George Romney, considered conservative Senator Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 an aberration, not a transformation.
The party was indeed transforming in 1968, but few understood the new dynamics at play. The field that year was crowded with moderates of various stripes: George Romney, Richard Nixon, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Massachusetts Governor John Volpe. The one conservative challenger, California Governor Ronald Reagan, only had a toe in the race because he worried two years as governor was not enough experience to run the country. So moderates had no reason to stick with George after a ghastly gaffe (he described a trip to Vietnam with US officials as ‘brainwashing’). There were plenty more where he came from.
The reverse is true this cycle. Over the past four decades, the GOP has shifted dramatically rightward. In this remade party, the gaggle of conservative candidates has suffered from the same dynamics that brought down George Romney. Until recently, their vote was splintered and easily lost to gaffes (‘Oops!’) and mini-scandals (be it hanky-panky, multiple Tiffany’s accounts, or the claim that vaccines cause mental retardation).
But it’s more than just the make-up of the candidate pool. It’s also how conservatives responded to the Romneys. Both men were moderate technocrats who believed their business experience could be brought to the world of public service. No ideologues here. George’s lack of an ideological centre came across clearly to Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1967. In a recently published collection of letters, Menzies noted to his daughter Heather that Romney ‘is a Mormon [who] appears to be personally well-liked and very presentable’, but on the most important issues of the day his views were ‘either unknown or studiously equivocal’. Mitt embraced his father’s pragmatism, calling himself a ‘George Romney Republican’ — ‘a very intensely practical person’ motivated not by ideology but by process.
Yet unlike his father, who found no favour among the Right in 1968, Mitt has the backing of the conservative establishment. In February he topped the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a national meeting of conservative leaders and activists. And he’s racked up endorsements from Tea Party favourites Governors Nikki Haley and Chris Christie and even from right-wing bomb-throwers Ann Coulter and Michael Savage.
Consider the treatment of the two Romneys in National Review, America’s oldest and most respected journal of conservative opinion. Despite their similar backgrounds and politics, father and son received very different coverage in the magazine. In the 1960s the editors shuttled between treating George as a threat and a joke, calling him ‘Ike in a sports coat’, but without the former President’s charm (the only thing conservatives liked about Dwight Eisenhower). George Romney was ‘Liberaldom’s new compact Presidential candidate’, part of an ‘unholy alliance’ against conservatives, a flip-flopper of such epic proportions that National Review dedicated a poem to him. It was called ‘My Most Recent Position.’ The same magazine endorsed Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, calling him a ‘full-
Why the difference? Because Mitt understood what his father never did: that the Goldwater candidacy did indeed change the GOP. After George put in a poor showing at a fundraising event in 1967 — one at which all the presidential hopefuls spoke — Goldwater suggested the governor might get a better response ‘if he rejoins the Republican party’. George shrugged off the criticism and the lukewarm audience, calling it a ‘Goldwater-Reagan crowd’. But as one attendee pointed out: ‘If that was a Goldwater-Reagan crowd, then so is the Republican party.’
George failed to heed the warnings, but his rival Richard Nixon did not. He explained to a friend that a Republican candidate needed conservatives to win, but couldn’t win with just conservatives. Mitt’s father didn’t recognise the wisdom of the first part: that he needed conservatives in order to win. And so many 2012 candidates have failed to understand the second part: that appealing only to conservatives is a recipe for disaster in the presidential election.
Paying attention to conservatives gave Nixon a foothold among the right in 1968, something he’d failed to find when he first ran for president in 1960. That was enough to make him a viable, conservative-enough candidate. In a 1968 field that included Reagan, Nixon found fans among conservatives. Right-wing newsweekly Human Events endorsed him, as did the New Hampshire kingmaker the Manchester Union-Leader and National Review founder Bill Buckley. Mitt has done just as well with the conservative establishment, despite the presence of enough right-wing candidates to field a bowling team.
So it is that Mitt Romney, like his father in so many ways, differs in one crucial respect: he knows how to position himself as ‘conservative enough’. And in 2012, as in 1968, that’s what it takes to win the GOP nomination.
Nicole Hemmer is a postdoctoral fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.