Scott Galupo asks:
How did we come to this pass, where a man like Mitt Romney — whose candidacy represents a breathtakingly cynical, borderline nihilistic pursuit of power on behalf of a tiny sliver of the population — sits within striking distance of the highest office in the land?
Scott is right that Romney’s nomination is partly accidental. His success as a presidential candidate in 2011 and early 2012 owed something to the poor quality of his competition, which in turn tells us something about the limited pool of available Republican political talent on the national level. That talent pool was so shallow and limited because of George W. Bush’s disastrous tenure, which resulted in massive Republican losses in Congress and at the state level. 2006 and 2008 drove many potential future Republican national figures out of office, and association with the Bush administration made most Republicans with significant experience in government politically radioactive. Romney was available to fill the vacuum left by all the politicians linked to Bush in some way and those caught in the Democratic waves of ’06 and ’08. Just as Bush’s failures made Obama’s nomination and election possible, they cleared the path for Romney that would have otherwise had many more obstacles in his way.
The effects of Bush’s disastrous tenure were so extensive that they continued to batter the new majority party and thus provide an opening for a wholly undeserved Republican comeback in record time. Normally someone in Romney’s position in 2008 would be doomed to serve in a futile Adlai Stevenson-like placeholder role in later years, but the severity of the recession and financial crisis bizarrely opened the door for the political success of a candidate as inclined to collusion with financial interests as any in our modern history. Romney had the good fortune to be rejected by the GOP in 2008 at a time when the party was at its lowest ebb in over thirty years, and then as runner-up to McCain he was then in a position to be accepted by just enough Republican primary voters when the GOP was riding a wave of anti-Obama sentiment to new political success. As a politician with an exceptional ability to say just about anything to appease different groups of voters, Romney was able to be the consummate Bush-era corporate Republican without being overwhelmed by the belated, incomplete conservative reaction against that era’s corporate and government abuses. A less shameless politician might not have been able to do this, but Romney excels in shamelessness.
The other part of the answer is that enough Republicans are content to tolerate someone like Romney for various reasons. He has fully embraced the anti-Obama mood of the party, and he has proven himself willing to say absolutely anything to attack Obama, which gains him admirers for his “toughness” even as if cements his reputation as a habitual liar. Romney’s corporatism doesn’t offend enough Republicans, and that corporatism is usually conflated with an enthusiasm for a free market in any case. I appreciated Luigi Zingales’ “only Nixon can go to China” proposal that Romney challenge corporate power in his campaign, but I think Prof. Zingales must know that Romney isn’t going to do that. Romney would have to believe that it would benefit him politically to do this, and he is generally regarded as risk-averse and not known for demonstrating the slightest political courage. For Romney, crony capitalism is what people in the other party do to benefit their preferred interests. He wouldn’t accept the argument that the corporatist policies he has supported in the past have anything to do with this.