Herman Cain's "blame the media for everything" strategy may enable him to survive the events of the past week in good enough shape to maintain his poll numbers. He may even pose a threat in the early primary states. But more and more, it looks like conservative elites are entering their last sad days of denying that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is going to be their nominee for president.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Back in May, officials at FreedomWorks, the organization that co-opted the Tea Party movement and made it part of the GOP establishment, were saying that they were going to pull out all the stops to derail Romney's bid. By the end of September, with Rick Perry's collapse already on full display, the organization revealed that it was "softening" in its stance toward Romney. Since then, Tea Party opposition to Romney has been largely irrelevant.
Romney's rivals didn't get the job done, either. Tim Pawlenty, threw down the gauntlet on the health care reform policy Romney enacted in Massachusetts, terming it "Obamneycare" during a television appearance. But he chickened out on making the criticism to Romney's face in their first debate after Pawlenty coined the term. He subsequently crashed out of the race, leaving the task to his fellow contenders, none of whom have proven up to the task of causing Romney any pain.
Meanwhile, the reluctant thaw is on between Romney and the GOP thought-havers he'll have to court. Karl Rove, who'll be doling out large sums of money over the next year to elect the candidates he finds acceptable, seems to have accepted the fact that he'll be doing so on Romney's behalf as well. And in the clearest sign that the elites are warming to Romney, the Wall Street Journal's editorial board today praise Romney's "fiscal awakening," awarding him some positive press for moving "part way toward Paul Ryan on Medicare."
Mr. Romney has moved about two-thirds of the way toward Paul Ryan's "premium support" plan. Like the Wisconsin Congressman, he'd give all seniors a defined cash contribution to choose among private insurance options.
Still to come are major details like how the premium-support payments would grow over time, but even endorsing the Ryan concept is unusual in this Republican field. (Jon Huntsman is the laudable exception.) Mr. Romney also attempts to inoculate himself against Mr. Obama's inevitable Mediscare attacks by retaining traditional fee-for-service Medicare with its arbitrary price controls as an option for seniors, unlike Mr. Ryan.
But the key reform point is that Mr. Romney says that all beneficiaries would receive the same fixed payment whatever plan they chose. In other words, premium support would ensure that all seniors get basic coverage, but if they wanted more expansive coverage they'd have to pay for it themselves. This would introduce competition to keep down costs over time—the alternative to the brute price controls and rationing of ObamaCare.
Once seniors begin to see the results of competition, our guess is that most of them would migrate away from the Medicare status quo. Mr. Ryan's plan is purer and would do more practical good sooner, but Mr. Romney's revision may be an easier sell in a campaign. He also ruled out new taxes as part of entitlement reform, an important political marker.
"Mr. Romney still needs a bolder economic growth agenda," say the WSJ editors, "but his fiscal awakening is encouraging." In other words, "Feh. Good enough."
At this point, only those who carry a torch for something purer object. Opposition to Romney's bid remains in the columns of George Will and the bloviations of Rush Limbaugh, neither of whom see Romney as a bonafide conservative. There also exists an organization called "Not Mitt Romney" -- a ragtag group that unites some B-list political operatives and activists with various conservative bloggers, sharia-panic loon Pamela Geller, and political performance-artist Roger Stone, who's never forgiven Mitt Romney for that time he strapped his caged dog to the top of his station wagon.
This group clearly dislikes Romney, but the problem is, it doesn't seem to have an alternative to offer. As Alex Pareene wrote last week:
So these are a bunch of right-wing media professionals who know how to generate a lot of press, but all the press attention in the world doesn't change the fact that a "don't vote for Mitt Romney" campaign is only effective if there's someone you can vote for.
So come out for Rick Perry, the only candidate who can potentially match Mitt Romney's fundraising, or Herman Cain, the only candidate currently even with Romney in the polls. Or Ron Paul! Or Jon Huntsman! But pick one, because you can't vote "not Mitt Romney" in a primary, or write a check to "not Mitt Romney's" SuperPAC.
Credit Erick Erickson, at the very least, for understanding that his fervent dislike of Romney has to come coupled with an alternative to tout. Erickson's RedState had been shaping up as the righty blogosphere's go-to source for Perry support, but Perry's inability to walk and talk is taking Erickson in a new direction.
I'm starting to think I need to walk it back on my rejection of Jon Huntsman. Because I'm starting to think even he would be more faithful in his conservative convictions than Mitt Romney. [Note: A lot of people are reading this as an endorsement of Jon Huntsman. It is not. Considering this, you might want to view it more as an expression of just how frustrated I have become with the field that I'm starting to think I may have to have another look given my conviction that a Romney nomination would (a) cause Barack Obama's re-election and (b) the destruction of the conservative movement as we know it.]
Here's where we note the beginnings of a Huntsman boomlet. Not the sort of boomlet that will lead to electoral success, mind you! Rather, it's the beginning of the "Jon Huntsman is getting a second look" stories that were probably inevitable, given his "Meet The Press" booking this past Sunday. Alex Massie notes that the meme is starting to worm its way along, from Erickson's post to the pages of Business Insider. "One more flurry of Huntsmania and we'll have a bona fide media trend," Massie says, adding, "and like most such trends, it will be bogus but fun." Mostly bogus, actually.
If Erickson's truly considering a walk-back on Huntsman, he'd better have a comfortable pair of shoes for the journey. Yes, it can be rightly said that Huntsman has mostly maintained his convictions, unlike Romney, who sells out in whatever direction the wind is blowing. As it happens, the stances for which he is best known -- like his position on climate change, to note one example in which Romney's shown some recent fecklessness -- aren't shared by the bulk of the GOP base.
Erickson praises Huntsman's economic plan, but I'm not sure why. Most of the time, when Huntsman talks about what policies he'd pursue on the economy, he doesn't sound any different from Romney. On those rare occasions when he does sound different from Romney, he sounds more like Elizabeth Warren.
And ultimately, Erickson is going to have to confront the starkly critical things he's said of Huntsman in the past. Which include this:
The reason I will never, ever support Jon Huntman is simple: While serving as the United States Ambassador to China, our greatest strategic adversary, Jon Huntsman began plotting to run against the President of the United States. This calls into question his loyalty not just to the President of the United States, but also his loyalty to his country over his own naked ambition.
It does not matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Party is beside the point here. When the President of the United States sends you off to be Ambassador to our greatest strategic adversary in the world, you don't sit around contemplating running against the very same President you serve. It begs the question of did you fully carry out your duties as Ambassador or let a few things slip along the way hoping to damage the President? Likewise, it begs the question of whether our relations with China have suffered because the President felt like he could not trust his own Ambassador?
So there you have it. Erick Erickson is considering flip-flopping on Jon Huntsman, because Mitt Romney is such a terrible flip-flopper. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board is learning how to settle. Karl Rove just wants to get on with it. This is basically a study in the Kubler-Ross model of the "Five Stages Of Grief."