In case you missed this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference, it was a good couple of days for Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, both of whom seem to be angling for higher office. They finished first and second, respectively, in CPAC’s 2016 presidential straw poll.
It wasn’t such a good time for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose speech about “inclusion and acceptance” earned a tepid response. Bush opted out of the presidential straw poll (not that it’s much of an indicator – only two of its winners (Ronald Reagan and Jeb Bush’s father) have gone on the claim the presidency.
And it was a terrible weekend for the Republican consultancy class, which got blamed for pretty much everything from the party’s failing at the polls to the USA’s early departure from the World Baseball Classic.
About those consultants: they’re easy prey any time a candidate or a party loses – even more so in the aftermath of the Romney meltdown, as the political world began to learn of who all on the inside profited despite the candidate’s reversal of fortune.
But let’s not overdo it. In the real life, political consultants aren’t as physically striking or strikingly Machiavellian as, say, Ryan Gosling (Ides of March), or as sinister as Richard Gere’s soulless media guru in Power (if you haven’t seen it, don’t bother – it’s a terrible waste of Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington). Nor, for the most part, are politically consultants as outlandishly quirky as Billy Bob Thornton was in Primary Colors. With the exception of James Carville (in fact, Thornton was doing a Carville imitation in that film, which itself was a thinly-veiled imitation of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign).
What political consultants are (and I say this as someone who’s been in this line of work): part of a professional in need of reform. What are stopping candidates from changing their fees from monthly retainers to something more incentive-based, or deducting pay and withholding bonuses for underperformance?
That said, the consulting class isn’t the lone reason why Mitt Romney doesn’t sit in the Oval Office and Republicans have fewer seats in Congress today they did a year ago (to give you an example of the tension between conservatives and the Romney consultancy, here here’s advice from the right after the 47% flap, versus Romney campaign chief Stuart Stevens’ post-election defense of the campaign and his client).
So if consultants aren’t solely to blame for the Republicans’ poor showing in 2012, who or what else deserves mention? I’ll give you three choices:
1) Primary Malfunction. If the agreed-upon aim was to defeat the Democratic incumbent, why did the establishment GOP – not the consultants, but the people actually running the party – make it so difficult for the Republican frontrunner to separate from the rest of the field? And that’s exactly what the Republican National Committee did in 2012. First, the party sanctioned 20 presidential debates, meaning Romney had to share the stage – i.e., come under televised attack – from at least three rivals on a given night, sometimes as many as eight. So much for a stature gap. Second, the party lengthened its primary and changed delegate-allotment to proportional rather than winner-take-all. Financially and strategically, it put Romney behind the eight ball: he had to wait longer to “go over the top” delegate-wise; he had to live by limited spending in primary state. Meanwhile, the challenger-free Obama campaign could spend as much as it liked, wherever it liked. Which it did in Ohio and Florida early in the year, which came back to haunt Romney in the fall.
2) The Republican Tech Wreck. Since the 2010 midterm results, the assumption was Republicans had pulled even, if not ahead of Democrats in terms of tech savvy. But in 2012, the Obama campaign was better at data-mining for voters. That gave the Democrats a leg up on micro-targeting voter-turnout, a strong point for the winning Republican effort in 2004. And it meant the difference in an election that was closer than it appears on the electoral scoreboard: going back to 1900, only three presidential elections had a narrower margin of popular vote than Obama-Romney (shift 195,000 votes in Florida, Ohio and Virginia and it’s a different a national outcome). In campaign post mortems, the Romney campaign was dismissed as a step behind the opposition in terms of innovation, while Team Obama bet early and heavily on a high-tech infrastructure. And there’s the woeful tale of Romney’s “Project ORCA” – aka, Romney’s “whale fail”.
3) Horsing Around. “Show me your horse”, goes the old proverb, “and I’ll tell you who you are.” This wasn’t so simple for Republicans when their lead stallions were Mitt Romney and John McCain – both gentlemen running in their second presidential campaigns as evolved candidates, having traded in moderate past for conservative presents. Like McCain in 2008, Romney in 2012 represented neither an emerging political movement nor a course correction for his party – the common threads in the last four defeats suffered by incumbent presidents. As the conservative writer Jonathan Last has pointed out, the most persuasive arguments for a Romney victory (“most electable”, “fundraising savvy”, “good campaign organization”) had more to do with the process than the man himself. Give those same consultants a conservative born of a genuine movement (Ronald Reagan) or a tweaked philosophy (George W. Bush and “compassionate conservative”).
There’s one other way to assess the culpability of the Republicans’ consulting class: wait until 2016 and see if a different group of candidates produces a different outcome. And then we can end the debate over what was the problem in 2012: the man, the machine, the men behind the curtains, or all of the above.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen