What if the chorus of prominent Romney criticisms coming from the Republicans is not just the sound of their unstable coalition falling apart? What if there is a Rovian plan afoot, one that would replace Romney with a nominee of their choosing at the convention?
Now, I'm not the first one to go down this road of speculation. But I pulled together a few more data points indicating a significant number of the Republican establishment leadership and prominent conservatives have publicly questioned Romney's abilities and decisions. Many are long-time political pros who couldn't go off message if they tried. Violating Reagan's Eleventh Commandment would seem to be the last place they would stray from the script. So, if this is not just sloppy politics, what is going on?
One of the latest jabs at Romney came July 27th from Karl Rove on Fox News in response to Romney's foreign kerfuffle. Sandwiched in between platitudes making the best of it ("not a big deal"), he said "You have to shake your head ... [platitudes] ... but nonetheless, the damage was done". Admittedly, I may be giving Karl Rove too much credit here for purposefully starting and ending his response with a criticism, but read on.
Rove July 18 in a WSJ opinion piece,
“The Romney campaign's response—which included whiny demands that the president apologize for his attacks—has unsettled GOP activists, causing them to wonder how prepared Mr. Romney and his team are for the mud-fest they've entered.”From the CS Monitor on July 17,
"A chorus of prominent conservative voices is worrying aloud that Republican candidate Mitt Romney's play-it-safe strategy is jeopardizing his chance to win the presidency."National Review's editorial on July 17,
"Release the Returns"George Will July 17 on ABC's This Week,
“The costs of not releasing the returns are clear, therefore he must have calculated that there are higher costs in releasing them.”Bill Kristol July 15 on Fox News,
"This is crazy… you’ve got to release 6, 8, 10 years of back tax returns... "Pete Sessions July 12 on CNN,
"His personal finances, the way he does things, his record, are fair game,"Former RNC chairman Haley Barbour, Chuck Grassley, Dick Lugar all have come out criticizing Romney for not releasing tax returns and not handling the politics of this well.
Romney has been the presumptive nominee since the end of May. These criticisms could be just light shining through cracks developing within the GOP, but the timing and consistency of these comments caused me to wonder. Combined with 1) the uncomfortable attention Romney is drawing to money, politics and the special privileges of the rich, 2) the opposite of enthusiasm in most of the base and 3) the repeated missteps of the Romney campaign, it seems likely the GOP leadership is looking at all possible options to change the topic. If Mitt is being purposely undercut, that may mean they've decided the most effective way to change the topic is to change the nominee.
How could this be possible? RNC Rule No. 9 (pdf) adopted in 2008 states,
"[the RNC is] authorized and empowered to fill any and all vacancies which may occur by reason of death, declination, or otherwise of the Republican candidate for President of the United State".So the question becomes, how can a vacancy be created? Mitt could decline the nomination or die, but neither seem likely. Two other possibilities I considered are vote throwing by convention delegates or disqualification of Romney as a candidate. With the "or otherwise" phrasing of Rule 9, both could qualify for creating a vacancy.
Delegates are said to be bound by state party oaths, but that does not prevent votes being thrown to another candidate, just that there may be consequences (such as losing their seat at the convention). RNC Rule No. 15 "Election, Selection, Allocation, or Binding of Delegates and Alternate Delegates" defers to the state Republican Party rules for binding delegates. But enforcement by the state parties would be unlikely if the anti-Mitt sentiment is wide-spread. A Romney campaign lawsuit might complicate things, but I can't imagine his campaign surviving this scenario.
Disqualification seems a more open avenue to creating a vacancy. The 2008 RNC rules say nothing about disqualification of a candidate for President, only of RNC members. And even disqualification of RNC members is only addressed to provide a method of replacement, not to define disqualification. Two state guidelines I reviewed (CA and GA) only reference national candidate qualification/disqualification for US Representative and Senator. RNC Rule No. 40 (d) states,
"When ... any candidate for nomination for President of the United States ... has received a majority of the votes..., the chairman of the convention shall declare that the candidate has been nominated."
So, disqualification must be done before the convention votes or in combination with delegate vote throwing. Under the party guidelines, there does not seem to be any restraints on disqualification, as long as Romney does not receive a majority of the delegate votes during a roll call.
I could speculate on what would disqualify Romney, but the potential list is open ended. Tax irregularities like the "retroactive" change of residency to meet Massachusetts governor candidacy requirements, refusal to disclose taxes as a breach of public trust, or just general disapproval of Romney by the Republican base for whatever reason (as reflected by a motion to disqualify at the convention) are just a few of the possibilities.
So let's follow that scenario through. If Romney is disqualified, the vacancy of the nomination can be filled by the RNC or by a reconvened national convention (Rule 9 (a)). For that, a replacement candidate is needed. Ron Paul is a natural option, since he is still a candidate and has an active and vocal base. But, the party leadership is not enamored of Paul and Paul doesn't have the numbers to swing it by himself. Former 2012 candidates are also possible, but they have already been vetted and rejected.
In fact, I can't think of a single national conservative figure that can motivate the base in a big way and is relatively undamaged in public opinion. Except for one. And he has shown his power to turn out the conservative base in large numbers.
Back in May 2011, there was a big surprise in the GOP race for the presidency. One of the top polling candidates stepped out of the race, saying "All the factors say go, but my heart says no". In Sept 2011, rumors flew when anonymous sources floated that he might reconsider after requests from Republican and conservative activists. In a familiar turn of phrase, these activists were "unhappy with the current crop of presidential hopefuls". Talk quickly faded as the primaries heated up and became nasty. Mike Huckabee went back to being a moderately successful Fox News talk show host and launched a not so successful bid to compete with Rush Limbaugh.
Whatever his actual positions, Huckabee has consistently been portrayed in the press as a voice of moderation on the Republican side, decrying the "toxic atmosphere" of the current GOP and saying that Reagan would have a hard time getting nominated. While viewers haven't flocked to his media venues, he has shown the power of Huck, calling for a Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day that resulted in a huge turnout.
There is no other potential GOP candidate that has the ability to excite and motivate the conservative base, while at the same time playing the moderate card to the public at large. He has even come across as an anti-Wall-Street populist at times. This may not endear him to GOP Big Money, but I expect they are looking for anything to change the current focus on money in politics.
What better way to redirect the national conversation away from rich peoples tax returns, than with a nominee that can talk like a populist without immediately being exposed as a fraud? All the talk of special treatment the rich get in our economy and politics will fall away, or at least quiet down.
I'll finish up this speculative piece by revisiting what Rove might gain here, and why the GOP establishment might line up behind a Huckabee upset at the convention. A large part of the public embarrassment that is the current GOP has resulted from the three major voting blocs demanding their pet issues be given lip service. Religious conservatives will not tolerate any equivocation on abortion or gay marriage, tea party conservatives will not accept any hint that government spending may be needed or that immigration is good, and GOP Big Money will not stand for regulations and taxation that hits their bottom line. But that trifecta turns off large swathes of independents, a growing Latino population and growing support for gay marriage, sealing the GOP electoral fate in the near future.
Karl Rove knows this, saying "Political parties do not succeed if they become smaller and more select." There is only so much branding can do if the demographic tide is turning and GOP messaging is fractured. Rove needs is a conservative base that is meek when dealing with the GOP establishment. What better way to daunt the base than by having the overwhelming favorite of religious conservatives go down in a good fight. Next time they'll know to play along. In the meantime, the extremist reputation of the current GOP gets muted by fielding a "moderate". And who knows, Huckabee could even win.
If faced with the choice, a Romney campaign fighting for the next three months to avoid talking about his taxes, business practices and habit of insulting people, or a Huckabee campaign toning down the "toxic atmosphere" that clings to the GOP, which do you think Rove would choose?
P.S. I know there are plenty of unanswered challenges to this scenario, such as fundraising on such short notice, but I thought it good to cover this possibility in case Rove pulls a fast one.