The Republican presidential candidates have presented a united front. They’ve held hands and stuck to the message. President Obama is the problem. They - the mature, resolved and above-the-fray Republican opposition - are the solution. Newt Gingrich momentarily strayed from the path by criticizing Paul Ryan’s budget plan and was swiftly reprimanded by the greater GOP establishment. Even the recent GOP debate in New Hampshire was more of a GOP powwow. There has been an obvious consensus to defer the intraparty feuding until the GOP has collectively, convincingly and resoundingly identified Mr. Obama as the nation’s albatross.
It has worked. Mr. Obama’s approval rating is nearing record lows and he loses in the polls to a generic Republican challenger if the election were held today.
Of course, each of the Republican presidential candidates hopes to be the one to replace that generic Republican challenger. Mitt Romney has now tipped the scales and altered the equation by emerging from the early GOP debate as the clear front-runner for the nomination. Mr. Obama’s relative decline and Mr. Romney’s potential ascent have emboldened the Republican field to abandon their familial camaraderie and adopt a new strategy.
So, after playing nice in New Hampshire - and being widely criticized by the media for refusing to take CNN’s repeated invitation to begin in-fighting - the candidates have begun lining up to take shots at the current king of the hill. Tim Pawlenty was first. Mr. Nice Guy himself, Mr. Pawlenty quickly revised his Obama-exclusive criticism of Obamacare into a Romney-inclusive condemnation of Obamneycare. And now, Michele Bachmann has opened fire on Mr. Romney for refusing to sign a pro-life pledge.
Both attacks are injurious to Mr. Romney. Mr. Pawlenty reminds the nation that Mr. Romney is the godfather of Obamacare and has been on the wrong side of the critical health care debate. Mrs. Bachmann evokes a fundamental issue among social conservatives while recalling Mr. Romney’s flip-flops and unreliability on social issues. Primaries are won on the fringes, among the true believers, who hold ideology and principle dearer than the general electorate. Hence, on the Republican side, primaries are won by winning over the core conservatives. Mr. Romney is a moderate among the GOP candidates and thus weak among primary voters. These initial salvos from his fellow Republicans are well aimed to target his weakness.
Obamneycare and social issues will continue to plague Mr. Romney, while his belief in man-made global warming will be the next round fired from his conservative opponents. Don’t be surprised if comparisons between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama become increasingly common. (After all, the friend of my enemy is my …?) Mr. Romney has now joined Mr. Obama as a legitimate target for conservative Republicans.
Of course, Mr. Romney will respond, but he will be in the unenviable posture of defending his record rather than controlling the conversation or taking the fight to either his Democratic or Republican adversaries. He’ll need to tread lightly when criticizing right-leaning Republicans before a right-leaning audience. But eschewing issues leaves only character attacks - an unpopular tactic among conservatives.
Mr. Romney will be forced to remain positive and sing his own praises while his GOP opponents will have every incentive to recite his negatives. Should these attacks sink Mr. Romney even slightly in the polls, a reprieve will be highly unlikely in the near future. And should Mr. Romney eventually fall, the primary season will be well under way and the remaining candidates will have no choice but to swiftly turn on one another as they scramble to occupy the vacant GOP throne.
Regrettably, the short-lived cordiality of the GOP primary race may have come to an end. One friendly debate proved one too many and the next year of primary contests will continually descend into the political free-for-all to which we’ve all become accustomed - because, at the end of the day,that’s the sort of behavior we reward.
Justin Paulette is a fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.