Yeah, I think so. Beyond Congress, I haven’t seen many endorsements at all—a handful, but not as many as there were in the last cycle. (Edit: After this conversation took place, another Politico story explored the state of the discussion among Republican governors.) I don’t think everyone thinks that Obama is unbeatable, but there’s still some question about what kind of candidate Republicans really want. And I think a lot of serious candidates are thinking, more often than not incumbent presidents get reelected, so I just want to wait for 2016. And so we don’t have the field that some folks would like, so endorsers are sitting on their hands and they’re waiting.
To pick up on the Tea Party thread, there’s an often-heard argument that the Internet has facilitated a decentralized brand of politics in which insiders have less influence than they once did. And that leads to the claim either that candidates can circumvent the party apparatus, or that there’s a shift in power between different factions of a party, as we’re seeing with the rise of the Tea Party. I’d be interested in your thoughts about that idea and its implications for your argument.
This kind of argument is actually not new. When television started being a major medium for political communication, you had a story that was pretty widespread and well accepted in political science that this was now candidate-centered politics, and candidates had found a way to end run around the parties. And of course the same thing was said about primaries in general, with the McGovern-Fraser reforms—this was a way in which candidates would do an end run around the party leadership.
And I think it’s true, these shifts do transfer power to perhaps a different group of people, or even to individual candidates as leaders of that different set of people. For example, I think there’s good evidence to say that the switch to primaries shifted power within the Democratic Party away from unions and to activist groups that were more sort of middle-class elites who had leisure time to go play politics.
But the thing that is important is that these party leaders still have to solve the same problems. That new faction, once they start playing the game, has to start thinking about, okay we can get what we want, but we need also to nominate someone who can win. And so they are brought very quickly into the fold with the rest of the party. Meanwhile the older group isn’t gone; they’re still around and they’re still engaging. I think that’s what’s happening with the Tea Party now. The party, loosely defined, is going to learn how to play with these new tools, and they’re still going to be trying to elect the best candidate who can also win in November.
So to apply that framework to a couple specific candidates, Mitt Romney is generally regarded as the Republican front-runner. But he doesn’t seem to be generating much enthusiasm, and there a variety of things that may make him objectionable, from his religion to his record on health care. The overriding media narrative seems to be whether he can make himself acceptable to the party. If you were a reporter covering the Romney campaign, what would you be looking for?
I think that basic narrative is pretty accurate, and it speaks well of the journalism community that they’ve settled on that. The basic question is the right question: What can Romney do to make himself appeal to elements of the party that don’t trust him on his religion, on health care? And even beyond health care he had a fairly liberal record in Massachusetts that he was flip-flopping away from in 2008. Those issues still continue.
The thing that I would emphasize is that the people he needs to please are not the voters in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina. Ultimately he has to do that, but the path to doing that is to please important leaders on those issues in the party. So when he gave his speech at the University of Michigan awhile back, the response to that really mattered. And the response within the Republican Party wasn’t very good. I don’t know what the polling results would be about how ordinary voters responded, but what mattered was the National Review, which endorsed him in 2008, was not excited by his effort to explain his health care position.
To take a candidate who occupies a very different position in the race, what would you look for if you were covering Michele Bachmann’s campaign?