It always surprises me when Republicans I know and respect -- smart people, I tell you -- ask, "If Mitt Romney was acceptable in 2008, then why isn't he tolerable to those same people now?"
The short answer is: we're not in 2008 anymore, Toto.
Next in Line
It's axiomatic that Republicans nominate whomever is "next in line." Meaning, if someone fails in one election and works hard getting enough other people elected, then when the next election rolls around, it's "his turn."
This is all very orderly. McCain lost to George W. Bush in 2000, and after Bush's two terms, 2008 rolled around. So at that time, it was McCain's turn. The problem was, McCain, always praised in the MSM as a "maverick" was not a reliable conservative. He was a squishy moderate that did not excite the conservative base. In fact, he panicked it.
Romney: Acceptable in 2008
Picking up on this angst, a prominent Republican said this of McCain in 2008:
[Bob Dole] is probably the last person I would have wanted write a letter for me...I think there are a lot of folks who tend to think that maybe John McCain's race is a bit like Bob Dole's race. That it's the guy who's next in line, the inevitable choice.
Who said that? Why, Mitt Romney!
Romney said this because he knew that the GOP was definitely not in love with McCain's "maverick" (i.e.: "moderate") past, and comparing McCain to 1996 moderate loser Dole was handing him an anvil.
Romney also provided conservatives in 2008 an acceptable alternative to McCain. Against Obama, one of the knocks on McCain is that he too was just a senator with no executive experience. Romney had executive experience up and down his arm's length resume. Also against Obama, Mitt was polished, and Republicans sensed they needed someone slick to go up against the orator that made women in his crowds faint (of course, now we know that Obama's entire 2008 campaign was a feint, but I digress). And McCain, who sometimes seemed confused and off-message, is not as slick of a presenter as Romney. Go Mitt!
So, with all of this going for him, Mitt is next in line, yet here in 2012, the conservative base is not fired up for Romney. Why not? What's different? How could the man whose bandwagon people were jumping on in 2008 to bump McCain now be someone who spent most of 2011 in 2nd place to a rotating cast of characters, including even Donald Trump?
Because 2010 happened.
Right Man for the Time
We have a way of electing the right man for the right time. Each election presents a different issue, and a different set of circumstances. A man considered indispensable in 2008 could be quite dispensable in 2012, as tax cheat Tim Geithner has suddenly become. Democrats, at least, believed that Geithner was the right man for the economic collapse of 2008-09. Now, it seems Obama is practically shoving him out the door.
Another famous example in history is Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 1940, after the weak accommodator Neville Chamberlain quit, Churchill rose to fight the Axis powers in World World Two, and defend England from Germany's bombing campaigns. His steely leadership helped save the UK. Once WW2 ended, he was defeated in 1945. He was no longer the right man for the time. Just as Rudy Giuliani's strong leadership after 9/11 made him a natural candidate to take the foreign policy baton from Bush in 2008, no one even considers Rudy today. Sorry Rudy, it's not your time anymore. Foreign policy is not the main issue anymore. The economy is. Jobs are.
[shameless plug: Republicans should be talking about nothing else except jobs, the economy and energy policy. I wrote a popular diary on that here.]
The Impact of 2010
In 2010, Americans had just witnessed Obama and his Democrats dominate Congress for two years. What did they do? Grow government. Spend us deeper into debt at an unprecedented pace. And of course, the Obamacare monstrosity. All of it against the will of the people. All of it to disastrous results. Even Obama won't brag about his signature "accomplishments" (from a liberal perspective) as his recent State of the Union address hardly said a word about them.
So, the Tea Party movement grew in the summer of 2010. An historic wave of Republicans took over the House of Representatives in November 2010. Exit polls confirmed that this was a sharp rebuke of the big government that Obama had given us, all the spending, and of course, his healthcare plan.
Romney: Conservative Kryptonite in 2012
Which brings us to 2012. It is through this lens that we evaluate Romney once again. The economy is the main issue, which you think would be in his wheelhouse, given how he's been "Mr. Fix-it" with turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics and failing companies when he was with Bain Capital. America thought it had a turnaround expert with Obama, but all he did was blame his predecessor. America may be in the mood to hire a real turnaround expert now, and Romney has the resume for this, which may appeal to independents.
However, Romney's signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts, Romneycare, gets much greater scrutiny now. Conservatives who just got done making a statement against big government and universal healthcare are now faced with a candidate who grew the government of his state with (wait for it) universal healthcare. From a solid place of principle, these conservatives don't want anyone with the stench of healthcare reform even near the White House.
Further, from a tactical standpoint, Romney can't really attack Obama on Obamacare since the president can just parry it with "we just copied what you did with MassCare." Romney can try to split hairs all day long about federalism, state's rights, 10th amendments, and "states as laboratories for democracy." The average independent voter won't pay attention to all this, and even if he did, probably wouldn't understand it. All they'll see is the headline: "President Obama thanks Romney for Obamacare blueprints."
2012 is different than 2008
So, what's different now is voter disgust with Obamacare. What's different now is John McCain isn't running. What's different now is we've seen what we conservatives can do about getting other conservatives in office, as we did in 2010.
These days, Bob Dole has endorsed Mitt Romney. Yes, that's right, the same man Romney said is "the last person I would have wanted write a letter for me." So this bit of optics doesn't help, given Romney's own doling out criticism. But also these days, more conservative candidates compare now "moderate" Romney to Bob Dole, so we've come full circle. Next in line, indeed.
Romney may still very well be the man for this time, as America can certainly use a turn-around expert right about now with 8.3% unemployment and $5.00/gallon gas prices. But first he needs to convince a skeptical conservative base that he's the right man for our economically challenged time, like Churchill in 1940, and not a man we have to accept because he's "next in line." We saw how that worked for Bob Dole in 1996 and McCain in 2008 and we don't want be fed any more lines.