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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Prodigal Sons

Jonathan Cohn has just published a long piece for The New Republic on the influence of the late George Romney, governor of Michigan, member of the Nixon Cabinet, and occasional candidate for the presidency, on his son, Willard Mitt Romney, candidate for president in 2008.
It’s an excellent profile, of interest particularly to those with no personal memory of Romney pere, who, as Cohn emphasizes, was one of the leaders of moderate Republican resistance to the first, Goldwater phase of the conservative movement’s takeover of the GOP. (One tidbit not mentioned in the piece was Romney’s role in the next, aborted phase of that takeover: he was the object of an unsuccessful revolt against Spiro Angnew’s nomination as vice president at the 1968 Republican Convention, led by then-governor John Chafee, who was distrurbed by Spiggy’s inflammatory racial rhetoric. Lest we forget, Agnew briefly eclipsed Ronald Reagan as the darling of the Right in the early 1970s, before a bribery scandal drove him from office).
While Cohn carefully documents Mitt Romney’s very recent makeover as a paragon of Republican conservatism, he does not note the obvious parallels to another son of a prominent Republican politician: George W. Bush. Just like Mitt, W. had to overcome conservative mistrust of his old man in order to become the presidential nominee, a process that reached its apogee in the famous 1998 Robert Novak column which dubbed him the “ideological heir of Ronald Reagan” despite his biological link to G.H.W. Bush.
It’s true, of course, that George Romney’s legacy is not remotely as large a blessing or curse for Mitt as Bush 41 represented for Bush 43. Many Reagan- and post-Reagan Republicans have probably never heard of the man. And even relatively well-informed observers may only remember him for his disastrous remark on the 1968 presidential campaign trail that his earler support for the Vietnam War was the result of his “brainwashing” by military briefers (which led to the devastating quip by Gene McCarthy, playing on Romney’s reputation as intellectually unformidable, that “I’d think a light rinse would have sufficed”).
Still, you have to remember that most conservative activists and opinion-leaders are deeply, deeply invested in the idea that W.’s many problems are attributable to a lack of fidelity to The True Cause. In other words, they think they were “had” by Bush and his flacks in the runup to the 2000 elections. Given Mitt’s far more ideologically heterodox record in Massachusetts, and his very recent “conversion,” the Bush experience is certain to weigh on conservatives as they try to decide between Romney and, say, Fred Thompson. And profiles like Cohn’s, which stress Mitt’s moderate birthright and nonpartisan habits as governor, will help fan conservative fears that blood is thicker than ideology.

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