Romney Can't Stop the Tea Party

Written by Chris Ladd on Friday October 14, 2011

By all appearances Mitt Romney seems likely to walk away with the Republican Party’s 2012 nomination. We can still expect a few scares, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina, but it’s getting harder to construct a credible scenario in which Romney fumbles this one away. He looks smart, savvy, and ready to take on a struggling President. Rational Republicans all over the country are imagining that it’s safe to come out from under their desks.

Hunker down. This is the eye of the storm.

Don’t be fooled by the myth that the Tea Party Movement emerged from nowhere in 2009. They are not an external insurgency. The Tea Party is little more than a rebranding of extreme elements that have come to control the party infrastructure across most of the south and west. A potential President Romney will be governing from a political island in a wild, conspiracy-whipped sea.

The Tea Party is not going to melt away without a fight. Romney may not have signed up with them, but he’s shown no willingness or capacity to take them on in the grassroots trenches. Romney has the party’s financial base, its main media arm, and the bulk of the primary electorate. The Tea Party has the activists and the infrastructure. And if you thought these folks were weirded-out by having a Black suspected Muslim in the White House, wait ‘til they get a confirmed cultist.

Romney will find it extremely difficult to nominate a credible Vice-Presidential candidate. The same intra-party dynamics that forced McCain into the arms of Sarah Palin will press Romney toward something that could be even worse. We may see someone just as politically daffy as Palin, but far more capable.

Worst of all, the Tea Party has locked up a critical prize in this campaign – second place. For more than 50 years the standing rule in the GOP has been that we nominate either our sitting President or the guy who finished second last time.

The only direct exception is Nixon who defeated the 1964 second-place finisher, Nelson Rockefeller, in the ’68 race. George W. Bush was nominated without having to face the previous runner-up, Pat Buchanan, who left the GOP in ‘99. Unless Jon Huntsman experiences some strange and miraculous surge, there is no realistic outcome in which the Tea Party will fail to capture the strategically critical runner-up slot.

Maybe this year’s second place finisher will get so fat and happy on their multi-million-dollar book and Fox News contract that they’ll lose interest in politics. Otherwise they will ride into the next campaign as the presumed frontrunner. That would be the culmination of twenty years of eroding GOP credibility, making a public showdown between the Tin Hat Brigade and the party’s old-line conservatives finally unavoidable.

With the presumed frontrunner in their camp and control of the party machinery over a wide swath of the country, the Tea Party, or whatever brand emerges to take its place, will hold the high ground in that fight. Someone might be forced to launch a third party. Unless we start working very hard and very soon (like yesterday) to retake control, it will be rational conservatives who are pushed out onto that rough road.

Ever since Reagan boarded a helicopter bound for retirement the Republican Party has been harboring a lazy fantasy. We’ve imagined that the genie he unleashed on the far religious right might crawl back in its bottle if we just left it alone. It’s amazing that a generation later so many Republicans still cling to that fantasy. A Romney win in this campaign is good. But the fight over the 2012 nomination is just a prelude to the battle for the soul of the Republican Party.