Barely three weeks before the Republican convention opens in Tampa, Florida, the party is deep in the throes of a barely disguised civil war. This is nothing new. The struggle for the soul of the GOP between conservative traditionalists and libertarian radicals has been going on now for more than 40 years, since Barry Goldwater briefly (and disastrously) wrested the presidential nomination from the corporatist Northeastern fat cats who ran the party for their own benefit. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a breakthrough for the Goldwater stalwart, though now even Reaganites are finding it uncomfortable as they fend off the Tea Party’s nihilistic insurgency.
The shock defeat in Texas of Rick Perry sidekick David Dewhurst at the hands of Tea Party candidate Ted Cruz was chilling for the Republican establishment. And there in the background, celebrating Cruz’s Senate primary victory with hockey mom gusto, was Sarah Palin, queen by acclamation of the Tea Party. If even ultraconservative Perry’s pick is now considered too traditional, too establishment, too safe, too left-wing for the Tea Party acolytes purging old-guard and dead-wood incumbents, which old-school Republicans can consider themselves safe? Cruz’s surprise success has proved to the GOP establishment that its days are numbered. Denial is futile. The Tea Party mob is coming for them.
Despite a lackluster economy, 23 million unemployed, unpopular healthcare legislation and a president portrayed as an elitist Kenyan Muslim socialist, Romney is still only neck and neck with Obama. And in the battleground states, Obama has a clear lead. Romney’s campaign managers know they must somehow enthuse the GOP base, but between them and the Republican grass roots are two gatekeepers who have maintained a studied insouciance about their official champion: Palin and libertarian-in-chief Ron Paul. Neither can bring themselves to unreservedly endorse Romney, a man who in the eyes of their supporters is not only part of the Republican Party’s problem but the nation’s problem, too. He is a privileged, ultrarich, blue-blood dilettante without any burning convictions who has decided to forgo a life of moneyed leisure to dabble in a White House run. In brief, he is not one of them.
The convention in Tampa at the end of the month is the last chance Romney has to persuade the party faithful he deserves their affection and support. The easiest way to achieve that would have been to invite Palin and Paul to speak at the convention and urge their followers to take a deep breath, cross their fingers and vote for the party, not the man. Therein lies the problem. Palin is a powerful speaker when preaching to the choir. It is not a question of whether Romney should invite her to speak, but how to get her to stay on message. For once, Lyndon Johnson’s gloriously vulgar aphorism about J. Edgar Hoover pissing in or out of the tent doesn’t apply. Palin will either be outside the tent pissing in, or inside the tent, pissing. Her big-bucks backers, SarahPac, have already acquired a perch close to the convention hall from which they can cause trouble whether or not their heroine is invited to speak. In the end, the GOP decided to leave Palin out in the cold. She was not invited to speak at the convention.
Ron Paul has earned himself a prominent place in the convention. Technically, he is still a candidate and has a small army of delegates he hopes to leverage with Romney in some way, though exactly what he has in mind is hard to fathom. His libertarian stance on decriminalizing hard drugs, leaving the uninsured to beg for treatment rather than oblige them to buy health insurance, and bringing home our armed forces only to fire them makes it impossible for Paul to become Romney’s veep. He would scare away all the moderate, floating, undecided voters who need to be wooed if Romney is going to squeak a win in November. Would Paul dare force a floor vote just to prove a point? It’s certainly in his contrarian nature.