Alert readers don’t need me to tell them that Mitt Romney’s Great Big Speech on health care at the University of Michigan yesterday was in political terms an epic disaster. By adamantly defending the Massachusetts health plan that has become his personal albatross; reasserting distinctions between “RomneyCare” and “ObamaCare” that conservatives just don’t buy; and then laying out a “plan” for what he would propose as president that is no more than a compilation of every tired conservative health policy pet rock of recent years; Romney did himself no tangible good and simply provided an opportunity for a united, high-profile chorus of denunciation and mockery from the growing ranks of his detractors, right, center and left.
Yes, he gets the occasional grudging prop for refusing to “flip-flop” on health care as he famously did on abortion and same-sex relationships, but a small “authenticity” credential is no substitute for being in synch with the conservative zeitgeist on perhaps the central policy issue going into 2012.
But what I find most interesting about the reaction to Romney’s speech is that this supposed favorite of Republican “elites” seems to have become unacceptable in some pretty elite precincts. The Wall Street Journal editorial board is about as “elite” as you can get, and it fired off an op-ed on the eve of Romney’s speech that essentially told him not to even bother running for president. National Review magazine is an elite conservative opinion-leader and one which, moreover, endorsed Romney’s 2008 candidacy. NR’s editors today published an institutional take on Mitt’s speech that used “failure” in the title and scathingly criticized nearly every word Romney said, concluding with this condemnation:
We understand that Romney does not feel that he can flip-flop on what he had touted as his signature accomplishment in office. But if there is one thing we would expect a successful businessman to know, it is when to walk away from a failed investment.
Jennifer Rubin, the designated conservative blogger for the Washington Post, occupies an unusually visible spot in the GOP chattering classes. Here’s her reaction to the politics of Romney’s gambit:
Romney is entirely lacking in self-awareness and understanding of the current Republican primary electorate if he thinks this speech is going to help. I’m sure his primary opponents, like many pundits, are dumbstruck that such a capable man could be so dense when it comes to his chosen profession.
These condemnations are pretty categorical, to put it mildly. And it shows the importance of a little nuance in talking about Republican “elites.” Some elements of the “elite,” mainly political professionals and corporate lobbyists, care more about “electability” and demonstrated “competence” than any particular item of ideology. These are the folk who are made uncomfortable by cultural issues, have patronizing attitudes towards the Tea Party movement, and think debt-limit brinkmanship and absolute ideological litmus-tests generally are irresponsible. This is what’s left of Mitt Romney’s “base,” aside from regular voters who are (a) members of the LDS faith, (b) older Michiganders who fondly remember his father and mother, (c) New Englanders who have an understanding attitude about what it took for Romney to win office in a state like Massachusetts, and (d) people not paying much attention yet to the issues that divide potential Republican candidates.
Indeed, Romney’s main hope at this point seems to be based on the fact that these voters are disproportionately represented in such early-caucus-and-primary states as Nevada, New Hampshire, and Michigan.
The more ideologically committed elements of the Republican “elite,” though, seem to have already given up on Romney, and even the “practical-minded” elites on his donor lists and organizational charts could easily defect if Mitch Daniels decides to run or Tim Pawlenty begins to gain some real popularity. Mitt’s own wealth and name-identification numbers will keep his candidacy alive for the immediate future. But it’s more and more likely that he’ll need an absolute demolition derby among his opponents to get to the point John McCain improbably achieved in 2008, when hostile ideological elites sucked it up and ate their words about him in an act of partisan solidarity.