I wonder whether Mitt Romney has failed to learn Karl Rove’s lesson. Rove ascribed George W. Bush’s defeat in the 2000 popular vote to under-motivation on the part of evangelicals and the religious right generally. Rove made up for that in 2004, heavily targeting churches in Bush’s re-election effort. That was the year of the “values voter.”
Paul Ryan checks the appropriate social-right boxes, but I wonder if his intensity is sufficient to mobilize the culture warriors — much as Robert Zoellick, ready though he may have been to sign onto Project for a New American Century regime-change manifestos, is insufficiently intense for neocon hawks. (Indeed, while Ryan is the golden boy of the neoconservatives for now, I suspect they quietly have doubts about him: not that he’s a crypto-realist, but clearly his primary interest is in domestic technocracy, not in foreign crusading.) If Romney loses, as I expect he will, the narrative for much of the right will be that Romney-Ryan was not “conservative” enough: not warlike enough on culture or foreign fronts to draw the bright moral lines that would supposedly lead to Reagan-like landslides.
The neoconservatives have no voters; they’re all chiefs and no braves. The religious right supplies the braves, and while the values voters may be demographically doomed — Ron Paul, of course, was the pick of the rising generation — for now they’re still the GOP’s electoral muscle. Just look at the past two cycles, where religious-right candidates wholly unacceptable to the party’s pragmatists, Huckabee and Santorum, generated enough grassroots enthusiasm to take silver (or close to it) in the presidential primaries. Palin was an awful VP nominee, but the logic behind choosing someone like her was sound. What does a Santorum or Huck voter get from Romney-Ryan beyond lip service?
Already Romney has a problem on the social right: a Santorum supporter connected to the religious-right Council for National Policy has been urging a Dump Romney campaign. That may be quixotic, but it suggests Romney has failed to secure this flank. Whether any leading veep contender other than Ryan would have helped is an open question — I don’t think Pawlenty had much visceral appeal to the religious right, despite all the chatter about how he was supposed to be their kind of thing.
The fault line within the GOP between religious voters and economic voters is often exaggerated: the two groups are mostly the same, just as the Tea Party is in many respects the religious right in anti-government drag. But there are serious cracks in the coalition along attitudinal and professional lines: the religious right has been unable in the quarter century since Pat Robertson’s run to produce a viable national leader, one credible enough to anyone outside the base even to serve as VP, let alone the presidential nominee. The rest of the party, meanwhile, whatever’s left of it, has to keep religious voters riled up while also keeping them sufficiently docile to accept nominees like McCain and Romney and trying to reach across to independent voters who are appalled by the religious right’s temper even more than by its issue positions. This is a very difficult balancing act at the national level. (At the congressional and state level, it’s somewhat easier since districts and states tend to be more culturally uniform than the country as a whole — also because, perversely, the most polarizing cultural issues are considered national rather than state and local matters.)
Ryan’s a more exciting pick than the others Romney was contemplating, but this does feel, as Noah Millman says, like Dole-Kemp redux, even if Romney and Ryan are sprier than their 1996 analogues were. Whatever else one might say about the lackluster ’96 ticket, at least the nominees seemed sober and capable. In trying to be something they’re not — passionate hawks and culture warriors — Romney and Ryan risk one kind of failure, but if they don’t put up the pretense, a fraction of the base (small, but significant in a close election) will sleep through the campaign. Successfully resolving these tensions would take leadership and courage of the kind the GOP hasn’t demonstrated since Goldwater and Reagan. So don’t bet it, or on this ticket.