The modern Republican Party hangs around Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency like a cement block around the neck of a Mafia hit. It is dragging him down in spite of his best efforts to get clear of it.
As many have noted, the biggest drag on Romney’s candidacy comes from the last Republican President George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney.
In Monday night’s debate President Barack Obama reminded everyone that Bush and Cheney were the ones “who brought us this mess.” Bush has the least favorable rating of any of the living presidents; only 43 percent of Americans have a positive view of his presidency. And Vice President Cheney, a.k.a. Darth Vadar, still holds the record for the most unpopular vice president in modern history.
Bush and Cheney, as most of us will remember, were all about going to war — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in theory — anywhere. Enraged by the 9/11 attacks, America stood by them for a while – until it became clear that the bellicose policy was not only misguided but also very expensive in both lives and money.
By the time Democrats took back the Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, the verdict was in. American’s thought the war in Iraq was a mistake. No surprise then, that Bush and Cheney have been sent to “undisclosed locations” for the duration of this campaign. And no surprise that the Mitt Romney who showed up Monday night as an agreeable and peace loving guy. He had one mission: show America that he was not cut from the Bush-Cheney cloth.
But the Bush-Cheney foreign policy is not the only cement block dragging Romney down. Thanks to a man named Pete Wilson, who was Governor of California in the 1990s, Mitt Romney has a big problem with Hispanic voters. In 1994 Wilson promoted and passed Proposition 187, a law many believed to be discriminatory towards the state’s large Hispanic population. Wilson and Prop 187 killed the California Republican Party. Just as Latinos were growing in the population and starting to vote, they got the not-so-subtle message that the Republican party was not their friend. With the exception of Arnold Scharzenegger, no Republican has won the California governorship since then. Not only did California move into the Democratic column in the Electoral College but the Republican Party nationally followed Wilson’s lead. And so today President Obama holds a commanding 45 percent lead among Hispanic voters; a fact that could turn out to be decisive.
The third cement block was tied around Romney’s neck during the Republican primaries this spring. Romney’s final primary opponent turned out to be a conservative Catholic former Senator named Rick Santorum. Not only did Santorum take an absolutist position on abortion, he introduced into the presidential debate the possibility that states should be free to ban contraceptives – and moreover that the 1965 Supreme Court ruling asserting a right to privacy when it comes to contraception was wrong. Many women were amazed and then appalled that, after nearly half a century of legal contraception, someone would actually want to go back in time. The legacy of that one is the fact that Romney is still trailing Obama among women.
Romney’s Republican Party problem is not insurmountable. When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992 he found himself saddled with a Democratic Party that had managed, in the preceding years, to come down on the wrong side of just about everything including, for instance, being on the side of criminals, not victims, during the country’s biggest crime wave. His strategy was to proclaim himself “a different kind of Democrat” and to take a few high profile positions such as opposing the violent lyrics in a song by a black singer called Sister Souljah in order to prove his independence from the orthodoxy of the party.
On Monday night Romney tried to untie one of the cement blocks around his neck by agreeing with President Obama and rejecting war. But the other blocks are dragging him down.
Unlike the Clinton era Democrats, no one in the modern Republican Party seems to be too worried about the fact that they have alienated some of the fastest growing parts of the electorate. Even if Romney manages to pull this one out and win, the prospects for the future of the Republican Party look dim unless they can manage to get themselves on the right side of history again.