Hunt: Mitt Romney, the end of establishment Republicans?

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Ever since Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has moved steadily to the right. Yet in Tampa this week, for the seventh consecutive time, Republicans will nominate a mainstream presidential candidate after rejecting movement conservatives.

No one would confuse Willard Mitt Romney with a populist or movement conservative; he oozes establishment. So did the other presidential nominees since Reagan, both Presidents Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain.

Like those predecessors, Romney calculated the formula for winning the nomination, says Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, and an academic authority on the Republican Party: "Just conservative enough to get moderate traditionalists and a chunk of movement conservatives." That, he recalls, was the model George H.W. Bush inaugurated in 1988. In fact, Pitney says, "Romney reminds me a lot of that President Bush, minus the war heroism."

Is this formula permanent or is it ephemeral? Vin Weber, a former congressman from Minnesota and a Republican luminary, believes it may be more deeply ingrained.

"Reagan believed in a mixed system, conservative but with an appreciation of the safety net, a coherent governing philosophy," he says. "What most Americans want is an activist, limited government."

Not so, says Richard Viguerie, one of the oldest veterans of the right-wing movement: "This is the last time the establishment will have operational control of a convention," the 78-year-old activist proclaims. The grass-roots, ideologically driven base typified by the tea party movement, he says, is maturing into full control.

The establishment Republicans generally hold more moderate views, some having grown up in the party, others coming from business, and with a general appreciation of an "activist, limited government." Movement conservatives are motivated by ideology, sometimes small-government economics, other times the religious social agenda. They range from Paul Ryan, the small-government, economic policy-savvy vice-presidential candidate, to Todd Akin, the Missouri Senate contender who last week suggested that it is rare for women to become pregnant as a result of rape, saying "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

From Washington to the state capitals to the local level, the movement conservatives are in the ascendancy. For years, the Republican base was divided; it's now dominated by the movement types.

A comparison of Reagan's last year in office to today illustrates the dramatic change. Then, more than one-third of Senate Republicans were either genuine liberals such as Mark Hatfield, Lowell Weicker and Arlen Specter or moderates such as Bill Cohen, Bob Packwood and Nancy Kassebaum. With the retirement of Olympia Snowe of Maine there'll be no more than two or three moderate Republicans in the Senate next year.

A quarter-century ago there were dozens of moderate Republicans in the House, members like Chris Shays of Connecticut, Amo Houghton of New York, Bill Gradison of Ohio, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Bill Frenzel of Minnesota. Today there are very few House Republicans who break with conservative orthodoxy.

The changes are equally dramatic at the state and local level. Moderate Republican governors are relics. In Kansas this month, the right wing, led by the state's conservative governor, drummed a number of the Bob Dole-type centrist Republicans out of the party.

Yet movement conservatives have never been able to rally behind a single strong contender in the race for the presidential nomination. Some of their leading lights -- Pat Robertson, Patrick Buchanan and Steve Forbes -- all aroused passions in part of the base. None possessed broad appeal. The one who might have come the closest was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the runner-up to McCain in 2008. Religious conservatives loved Huckabee and, though he was suspect to supply-side economic conservatives, he had some draw beyond his core constituency.

Huckabee would have been the strongest rival to Romney in 2012. He decided, however, not to run.

Thus, this year, the former moderate Massachusetts governor faced the weakest primary field in modern memory.

The candidacy of businessman Herman Cain, who led the field at one stage, was a joke; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was too angry and too narrow, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich never held consistent conservative convictions. The one with the best chance, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, proved to be a disastrous candidate, making Romney's task relatively simple.

More than a few movement conservatives who want to defeat President Barack Obama see the Promised Land ahead, win or lose in November. They believe there is a core of ideologically driven younger Republicans who will replace the party's congressional leaders and will be positioned to nominate one of their own the next time. At the top of that list might be Romney's chosen running mate, Congressman Ryan of Wisconsin, whom many of these politicos on the right see as younger Reagan.

He would turn Pitney's maxim upside down and galvanize the movement conservatives while getting a chunk of the moderate traditionalists.

Writer Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News.

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