The moment will probably come in the early fall of 2012: Ultra-conservative House Republicans will draw a clear line in the sand, and Mitt Romney will have to choose whether to stand with them, or stand against them.
Romney quieted conservative complaints last month by embracing Paul Ryan’s budget and its deep spending cuts. Now President Obama has already begun to cast the plan, and the candidate, as “radical.” Many conservatives are quietly resigned to the expectation that their candidate will betray them, likely in the fall as he pivots toward the center. And some Republican strategists are already urging Romney to make that public break with his party’s conservative Washington leaders, who are as unpopular with the broad electorate as they are beloved by the conservative base.
“There’s no possible way for him to be elected president without at some point distancing himself from Congress,” said Dan Schnur, who was communication director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. “He signed on to the Ryan Budget and he’s going to need to stick with it for a while, but at some point in late summer or early fall, the budget negotiations are going to take a turn that is going to force him to part ways with the House Republicans.”
The Republican congressional leaders “are deeply, deeply unpopular, and Mitt Romney has no reason why he should run as part of Team Washington, or as the captain of the Washington Red Team,” said Steve Schmidt, a former Bush aide who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “He should run as someone who’s going to come to Washington and clean things up, which means having the appropriate distance between himself and the Republican majority in the House and the Republican minority in the Senate.”
Romney is one of the most cautious national candidates in memory, almost allergic to dramatic gestures. But he’s also a career moderate with few movement conservatives in his circle. And there’s nothing novel about the general election pivot. Indeed, most successful national politicians find a symbolic moment to break with the least popular elements of their parties. Today’s Congressional Leadership, with its approval ratings in the single-digits, can’t actually be much more popular than Sister Souljah, the rapper whose name Bill Clinton made synonymous with that political maneuver.
But for Republicans, it was George W. Bush who set the model.
Already a far stronger Establishment candidate than Romney is now, Bush chose the fall of 1999 to make his break. When Republicans sought to balance the budget by postponing payments of the Earned Income Tax Credit to low-income workers, Bush attacked.
“I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor," he said.
Later that week, he again positioned his “compassionate conservatism” against the anti-government Republicanism that had characterized the opposition of the 1990s. His aggressive education reform measures, he said, would put an end to his own party’s “disdain for government."
This time in 2000, he picked other opportunities to put distance between himself and the Congressional Republicans, on everything from trade in China to Bill Clinton.
When the a top official of the National Rifle Association, a key figure with the party’s base, charged that President Clinton had “blood…on his hands” for failing to enforce existing gun laws, Bush rebuked him.
The group’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, had "gone too far, Bush said, citing “ways to debate the issue without casting aspersions on the president like that."
Bush had a profound advantage, however, that Romney lacks. He had the trust of conservative leaders, who went along when he cast his breaks with partisan figures like DeLay as something short of attacks on the conservative movement.
“As far as conservatives were concerned, Bush vs. Delay was just intramurals,” said Schnur, who said it would likely only delay the 2012 nominee’s pivot.
“Romney’s still proving that he’s a member of the club, so he has to wait longer,” he said.
Romney’s own advisers swear he has no plans to betray a party that has, however reluctantly, finally begun to rally around him.
“This race is about bigger things than something like that,” said Kevin Madden, his 2008 spokesman and now a campaign adviser, who said Romney will keep a simple focus on the economy. “Obama owns the Washington status quo brand now, much more than anyone,” he said.
But many conservatives, distrustful of Romney even as the party rallies around him, are also glumly anticipating a pivot, or at least an attempt to wriggle away from the dramatic budget cutting he has embraced in Ryan’s plan.
“I suppose he’ll want to start looking like some kind of a statesman who rises above this stuff, but you can’t really rise above it,” said Dick Armey, the former House Majority Leader, who said he wasn’t sure which way Romney would go.
“Either you’re going to support raising the debt ceiling and keep spending…or you’re going to make the hard budgetary choices,” he said. “If he wants to be friends with the conservatives he’s going to have to start getting tougher and say, 'We won’t raise the debt ceiling [unless] you’ve show us that you’re going to move budgetarily in direction that won’t make this necessary in the future."
Romney may pick a fight with the Congressional leadership, or he may have a fight forced upon him. In particular, some new projections suggest that the next debt ceiling battle — which had been expected in 2013 — could come as soon as September, forcing the Republican candidate to pick a side. September could also see a budget battle, but Congressional leaders may also push that debate until after the election.
Many of those choices are out of Romney’s hands: Either Obama’s allies, or Romney’s own tepid Congressional supporters, could insist on the kind of dramatic showdown that has repeatedly paralyzed Capitol Hill during the Obama Administration. But House Republicans may also seek to smooth Romney’s path.
“I don’t think you’ll see any attempt by Republicans to be creating a crisis or for Romney to be dragged into a crisis,” New York Congressman Peter King told BuzzFeed. “Once Romney is the nominee, he becomes the star of the show.”
But senior Congressional aides also warned that Romney would pay a price for any attempt to triangulate against their leaders, who are — though broadly unpopular — far closer to the conservative Republican grassroots than was the leadership in 2000.
“Mitt Romney is a serious leader with a plan to revitalize the economy and get Americans working again,” said Brad Dayspring, a political advisor to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “His best chance to accomplish those goals is to establish a strong working relationship with a Republican majority in the House and ideally the Senate.”
“We would be very understanding about running against Washington and Congress in general,” said a top Congressional Leadership aide.” I don’t think it would be smart politics in any way to single out [Speaker John] Boehner or House Republicans.”
Romney’s flexibility may in fact depend on how secure he feels with the Republican base by the fall, and whether his running mate has been able to cement that bond.
“Romney still has a conservative problem so he would only hurt himself with the base that supports House Republicans if he did that,” said another former Bush aide, Ari Fleischer, who added that Boehner and Cantor lack the kind of notoriety that figures like DeLay and Speaker Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi have carried with swing voters.
But Romney's weakness among conservatives has a flip-side: They endorsed him late, and weakly, if at all, and he doesn't owe them much. And the candidate may not enjoy the luxury of keeping both his warm ties to Republican leaders in Washington and a clear message that he stands apart from them.
“Running for president is a hard job,” said Schmidt. “Mitt Romney is going to have to act in his self-interest, not necessarily the Republican Establishment’s self-interest.”
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.