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Five Takeaways From the 2012 Primary Season

Now that Mitt Romney is officially the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and we have some distance from the primaries that decided it all, it’s time to consider the lessons. Otherwise, poor memories, shaky analysis and self-serving spin will combine to congeal a conventional “wisdom” that is anything but.

As someone who obsessively chronicled every twist and turn of this very odd nomination contest for TNR, here are my five top takeaways:

1.      Mitt Romney is a very lucky man. The Republican Party’s dominant conservative wing resisted his nomination as long and as hard as it could, but in the end, had no better options. Herman Cain was not ever going to win the nomination. Nor, likely, was the immensely vulnerable, highly unpopular Newt Gingrich or the extremist Michele Bachmann, both of whom were an oppo researcher’s dream. The two potentially viable rivals were Tim Pawlenty, who gambled everything and lost on the fool’s gold of the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa last summer, and Rick Perry, who ran one of those rare, amazingly inept presidential campaigns that are a constant reminder of the importance of minimal competence in politics. It’s a sign of Romney’s vulnerability that Rick Santorum—whose 2006 Senate defeat told you everything you needed to know about how well he wore on voters, and how much ammunition his record provided his opponents—came within a few thousand votes in Michigan of sending Mitt’s campaign into a potential death spiral and the national GOP into a panic. Anyone who tells you Romney’s nomination was pre-ordained by some iron law of succession or some shadowy “Establishment” was obviously not paying much attention to how the deal actually went down.

2.      Conservatives reasserted their control of the GOP. You’ll also hear that Romney’s nomination was a victory for Republican “moderates” over “movement conservatives” or their latest grassroots incarnation, the Tea Party. Don’t believe it. Yes, hard-core conservatives would have preferred a different nominee—for the most part, someone who wasn’t running, like Jim DeMint or Mike Pence or Marco Rubio—but they had issues with virtually everyone in the actual field, and more importantly, they got what they needed from Romney, who was, as everyone seems to have forgotten, their own preferred candidate in 2008. He’s atoned for his health care heresy by promising about ten thousand times to repeal ObamaCare root and branch. He’s on board with the twin pillars of the Small Government counter-revolution, the Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge, and the Ryan Budget. He’s foresworn increased taxes as any part of any budget deal, however large. He’s met all the basic social-issues litmus tests of the Christian Right. He was by most measures the hawkiest of all the candidates on foreign policy issues. And for good measure, he tacked hard right on immigration policy in order to croak Rick Perry. Thanks to his “flip-flop” problem and conservative hyper-vigilance, there will be no back-tracking by Romney between now and November, or most probably, between now and the end of time. Mitt’s no stubbornly independent cuss like John McCain. He’ll stay bought.

3.      2012 is not just “about” the economy. The primaries did not notably feature debates among Republican candidates about how, exactly, to bring the U.S. economy back. In part that’s because they were in total agreement on the big points: both fiscal and monetary stimulus of the economy are terrible ideas; excessive federal spending and extension of housing credit to irresponsible poor and minority folk caused the Great Recession; and a systematic agenda of universal deregulation, public-sector austerity, health-care rationing to reduce costs, restriction of collective bargaining rights, and high-end (including corporate) tax cuts are the prescription for recovery. That this is the conservative movement’s permanent non-cultural agenda for good times and bad is the tip-off that even the GOP’s “economic” plans are about an ideological commitment to smaller government—extending very nearly these days to a complete overturning of the New Deal and Great Society legacy—rather than any shrewd macroeconomic strategy. Beyond that, there is no question the primaries reflected an abiding preoccupation with cultural issues, whatever the candidates professed, viz. the endless angels-dancing-on-pins distinctions on whether to ban “abortifacient” contraceptives as well as clinical abortions, the war on Planned Parenthood, and the final plunge of the GOP (and for that matter, the Catholic Bishops) into full harness with the Christian Right’s long-standing position that church-state separation represents a “war on religion.” It’s hard to imagine much of anything about the subject-matter of the primary contest that would have changed had the economy been booming.

4.      Super-PACs have changed politics. Whether it’s simply a matter of the drift towards uncontrolled campaign financing accelerated by Citizens United, or the hyper-mobilization of an unprecedented group of politically active billionaires, there’s no question the Super-PACs played a big role in the nomination contest. Newt Gingrich’s Palinesque media-bashing debate performances had a lot to do with his candidacy coming back from the grave twice, but he would have remained a novelty candidate like past debate phenoms had not it been for Sheldon Adelson’s decision to give him the resources to run an actual campaign. It was Romney’s Super-PAC that destroyed Perry in Iowa, Gingrich in Florida, and later on, Santorum in the Midwest. And when the losing candidates’ own sugar daddies (Adelson and Santorum’s friend Foster Friess) closed the checkbooks, it was all over. The same forces (and many of the very same people) may be about to save Scott Walker’s bacon in Wisconsin, and are in the process of challenging the assumption that the sheer power of paid media can’t win a presidential general election.

5.      The crazy nomination process is here for another four years. The dog that didn’t bark in 2012 was the usual chorus of complaints about the crazy-quilt nominating process itself—the disproportionate power of the early states, and the buyer’s remorse of voters and elites stuck with a nominee they didn’t want. The stretched-out nature of the primary calendar—which kept Romney from formally claiming the nomination until late May—was part of that non-event. So, too, was the rapid consolidation of support behind Romney once he essentially clinched the nomination in Wisconsin if not earlier. There will be some grumbling about the procedural glitches that allowed Ron Paul’s minions to dominate delegate selection events long after the deal had gone down, but for the most part, minor adjustments should suffice. We’ll be stuck with the same crazy system in 2016.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.