As the American Right shifts from doubting whether Mitt Romney would make a good president to championing the presumptive Republican nominee, Philip Klein, a conservative editorial writer at The Washington Examiner, has a timely warning: If conservatives are to fare better over the next four years than they did during the calamitous tenure of George W. Bush, zealous group solidarity is insufficient. They need a strategy to pressure a hypothetical President Romney to govern as a small-government conservative, an outcome that is anything but certain.
Klein's newly published e-book, Conservative Survival in the Romney Era, sets forth his recommendations, gleaned from a hard-headed analysis of what went wrong from 2001 to 2008. That approach alone makes his project an important contribution to conservative discourse. For all the tea party complaints about profligate spending and suboptimal policies passed during the Bush years, few conservatives understand why things went awry, their complicity, or how they might avoid a repeat the next time the political party they support comes to power. That they learn from their mistakes is in everyone's interest.
This e-book is aimed at a movement audience, and is bound to strike the general reader as needlessly doctrinaire. Conservatives "should always be focused on advancing their ideology," Klein writes, as if it has all the answers. Isn't it prudent to temper ideology with empiricism? Klein is nevertheless clearheaded in his analysis of what went wrong for the Right during the Bush years. For example, Paul Ryan, Tom DeLay, and Rick Santorum are all quoted explaining why they cast votes for Bush-era legislation they found wrongheaded even at the time. The anecdotes are useful reminders of the pressure a president and the establishment of his party can bring to bear, and the frequency with which partisan loyalty is put before principle and the public.
While Romney boosters are already arguing that the former Massachusetts governor will have no choice but to govern as a conservative if elected -- that the base will rebel en masse otherwise -- Klein understands that "there's always some argument partisans will make to discourage conservatives from criticizing Republicans." As he says in a weary forecast, "In the coming months, those of us who criticize Romney from the right will be told we should save it until after November, or else we're just helping Obama. When we do so after the election -- should he win -- we'll be told he deserves a honeymoon period and needs to rack up a few accomplishments first before moving to items on the conservative agenda. Eventually, it will be that we can't weaken him before the midterm elections, and then later, that we have to loudly support him, or else he'll lose reelection to an even worse liberal boogeyman (or boogeywoman) in 2016."
But "conservatives shouldn't allow themselves to simply become an extension of the Republican Party," Klein counters. "Romney should get conservatives' support when he earns it, and criticism when he deserves it." It's unfortunate that movement conservatives need to be warned against carrying water, as Rush Limbaugh once described his function during the Bush era.
Yet who can deny that they do?
The rest of Klein's advice takes as its starting point a plausible future:
If Romney beats Obama at the ballot box, conservatives will hail him as a conquering hero, like Beowulf after he slayed Grendel. By the time he took the oath of office, Romney could feel much more secure about his support from conservatives than he did during the Republican primary. Given the amount of money it takes to campaign in the modern era, serious primary challenges to sitting presidents are unlikely. A President Romney could very logically make the calculation that conservatives are more or less stuck with him.
Why might he want to do so?
Each one of the key items on the conservative agenda (repealing and replacing Obamacare, overhauling the tax code and passing substantial reforms to the nation's entitlement programs), independently, would trigger an epic confrontation in Washington. Knowing what we know about Romney's aversion to political risk, it's fair to wonder whether he'd be reluctant to get involved in such bitter partisan battles, especially early in his presidency. He may prefer to pass a series of smaller, less controversial, bills to rack up mini-victories while assuring conservatives that he'll get to the bigger stuff later. Over the course of the presidential primaries, persistent skepticism among conservatives continued to force Romney to embrace policies that his initial instinct was to avoid, particularly on Medicare reform. This is clear evidence of Romney showing responsiveness to conservatives. But as the race moves out of the primary, their bargaining power could recede.