By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Grumpy conservatives survey post-Iowa scene

Mitt Romney campaigning in Iowa — in 2007

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

The conservative commentariat today is grumpy. And perhaps none is grumpier than Red State’s Erick Erickson, who’s unhappy not only with the Republicans’ eight-vote front-runner, Mitt Romney, but with his newly elevated conservative challenger, Rick Santorum.

Complaining that Santorum is a “big government conservative” in the tradition of George W. Bush, Erickson writes that the former Pennsylvania senator’s reputation as a retail politician is vastly overblown. “His campaign was not successful, it’s just all the others sucked so bad,” he says. Erickson’s improbable dream: a renewed effort by one-time Tea Party favorite Rick Perry, who’s gone home to Texas and who may be out of the race by the end of the day.

Aside from the impossibly thin margin separating Romney and Santorum, there was nothing about the Iowa caucuses that should have surprised anyone. For days it had been clear that Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul would be the three top finishers. And it remains Romney’s central dilemma that even though he seems the likely nominee, the conservatives who comprise the base of the Republican Party can’t stand him.

“He has all the king’s horses and all the king’s men supporting him, the print MSM and most segments on Fox News Channel in his favor, yet for the second time in four years, 75 percent of Iowa caucus-goers rejected him,” writes Kellyanne Conway at National Review. (Conway, a political consultant working for Newt Gingrich, nevertheless reserves her strongest praise for Santorum.)

Over at Slate, John Dickerson offers a startling statistic: According to entrance polls, Santorum beat Romney 36 percent to one percent among caucus-goers who wanted a true conservative. “Santorum is now the only Flavor of the Week candidate to actually win anything,” Dickerson says, “which makes him a genuine threat to Romney, at least for the moment.”

So what is a conservative to do? Daniel Larison’s response is to grouse. Writing at Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative, Larison mocks the notion that any of the Republicans who didn’t get into the race, like South Dakota senator John Thune or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, could have stopped the Romney machine. Larison continues:

“It remains true that Romney shouldn’t be the nominee, and Republicans will regret nominating him, but it seems extremely unlikely at this stage that anything is going to prevent it from happening.”

At National Review, Jim Geraghty fingers the Ames Straw Poll as a principal source of conservative angst, since it prematurely ended the campaign of someone who might actually have beaten Romney:

“The Hawkeye State killed off the chances of a perfectly good candidate, Tim Pawlenty, in favor of his Minnesota rival Michele Bachmann, only to drop her like seventh-period Spanish by the time the actual caucuses rolled around.”

Yet if Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, really had that much potential, surely he should have been able to beat Bachmann, who is apparently headed for the exits as I write this. Maybe Pawlenty could have grown if he hadn’t been pushed out by a ridiculously early, meaningless test — or if, despite the Ames result, he’d kept working it, like Santorum, written off by everyone until just a few weeks ago. But in public, Pawlenty came off as being cut from the same cloth as Romney, a bit more conservative perhaps, but even less charismatic, if such a thing is possible.

At the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes predicts that conservatives will now coalesce around Santorum, creating a “one-on-one race” that “is exactly what Romney hoped to avoid at this stage.” And at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan bizarrely (not to be redundant) proclaims that Romney emerges from Iowa a stronger candidate because he succeeded in vanquishing Gingrich, “a foe big enough that when you beat him it means something.”

The Pollyanna award goes to Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who thinks caucus-goers did themselves proud last night. “Presented with the weakest presidential field of any major party in a generation,” he writes, “they made the best of a bad situation, punching the three most deserving tickets without handing any of them a decisive victory.”

Which sounds like another way of saying — to echo Pat Caddell and John LeBoutillier on last night — that the big winner of the Iowa caucuses was Barack Obama.

Photo (cc) by and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Christian Avard

    The biggest threat to Obama is a third party candidate. Did you read the article (I think it was in the NYT) about Christie Todd Whitman becoming a third party candidate? A friend of mine (a senior staffer for Gary Hart’s ’84 and ’88 campaigns) thinks if Whitman or a similar candidate jumps in this summer, it could come down to a Florida, Ohio, or some other swing state. Interesting.

    Your thoughts?

  2. Mike Benedict

    @Dan: Pawlenty is Romney Midwest. He’s roundly disliked by his home state voters; he governed a progressive state, which makes him suspicious in the eyes of the dyed red Republicans; and he lacks 1) personality (as you noted) and 2) vision. He’s certainly not ready for prime time.

    @Christian: I think Obama would be more worried about a third-party candidate from the liberal wing of the Democratic party than from someone like Whitman who wouldn’t really peel off any voters that otherwise would go for Obama. She was a do-nothing EPA Administrator who ran a reliably blue state that almost assuredly will go for Obama in 2012, and she has no real fiscal chops to separate herself from the rest of the pack. (In other words, she’s a Republican.) In short, Whitman’s no Hillary Clinton.

    When all is said and done, Obama will be running on a solid platform: nine (and counting) straight quarters of employment growth; banking and Wall Street reform; an end to the war in Iraq; an end to DADT; a prudent and responsible foreign policy; a return to serious policy debate in the White House. The only thing missing is the closing of Guantanamo, which in retrospect, he should have done via Executive Order and then moved the rascals to a diehard red state like Alabama.

  3. C.E. Stead

    DK – I very much object to the idea that the media and Fox are pro-Romney. For example, last night Bill Kristol kept saying that even if Romney WON, it wasn’t a REAL win, as he didn’t ‘expand his percentage’ over 2008 when he came in second. Now, he came in first with a vastly larger turnout, but it still isn’t real.

    Personally, I think every time I hear various Fox News analysts talk about the ‘Anti-Romney’ it adds to the perception of his strength, if all these challengers have tried and failed to become an alternative.

    I would also say that anyone who proclaims themself a ‘true conservative’ in Iowa has little to do with the voting desires of the balance of America. Pat Buchanan was probably a quisling to them.

    I also think the MSM assumption that Bachmann will endorse Santorum is premature – she leands the TEA Party caucus, and is all about the dollars and sense. As much as she might like Santorum’s ultra-right stands on SOCIAL issues, they are far apart on the other issues.

    (About Santorum – did you see the interview this week when Shep Smith asked him – live and on camera – when he was going to ‘catch up with the rest of American and admit that what two consenting adults want to do in their own home is no business of the government’ and drop opposition to gay marriage? Santorum looked a little gobsmacked…)

  4. Stephen Stein

    @Christian – I’ve seen nothing to convince me that anyone is getting in as a 3rd party candidate from the middle (except for maybe Trump – who knows what that clown is going to do, or what the effect would be).

    I think a much livelier possibility is that if Romney gets the GOP nod, someone will run from the Tea Party right – Ron Paul hasn’t ruled that out. To forestall that possibility, I have long predicted that Romney will go Tea Party in his VP choice. Bachmann has always been my prediction, but her weak showing in Iowa (which should have been the best of all possible worlds for her) makes me think he’ll go for the strongest not-Romney – Santorum at the moment.

  5. Mike Benedict

    @Stephen: The Tea Party has a take-no-prisoners mentality. Ergo, Santorum could not be Romney’s VP, as that would be akin to sleeping with terrorists.

  6. C.E. Stead

    @Steve – I used to think the VP would be Herman Cain (who was a state chair for Romney in 2008). Now – I think Gov. Nikki Haley.

    For a VP, there is what I call the ‘Rappaport Test’. When asked why I thought Healey would make a better Lt. Gov. than true conservative Jim Rappaport, I would always ask – Can you picture Jim standing two paces behind, smiling and nodding, as the Gov. introduces a plan/program/policy with which he personally disagrees root and branch, and then working to implement it? Because that’s the job of a Lt. Gov. – and by extension, a Vice President.

    How about it? Can Santorum smile and nod after he’s lost a policy battle?

  7. Mike Benedict

    Nikki Haley won’t play nationally. She’s Palin nutty.

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