Twelve months ago, Mitt Romney made a hero's entrance but a loser's exit here at CPAC. Trailing in the Republican Primary, but recently accepted as the far right's representative in the field, Romney entered the room to thunderous applause but used his speech to make a surprise withdrawal from the race, drawing gasps and cries of despair from the crowd. (For a full report from that day, including quotes from crushed Mitt followers, click here
.) From that point forward, you'll remember, Romney became a political odd man out. He had to grovel before John McCain would allow him to be his surrogate on television.
Today, in the same ballroom in the same hotel, Romney made another hero's entrance. The CPAC attendees -- burned by a presidential nominee who did not share their far-right beliefs and disappointed in a Republican congressional leadership they see as providing no leadership at all -- embraced Romney warmly. Organizers were forced to open a second ballroom for overflow viewing. Romney's introducer, the head of the American Conservative Union and the official host of CPAC, called Romney "one of the family." Romney replied, "It feels like coming home, I gotta tell ya."
Romney's speech was standard fare. "I'm afraid I know where the liberal Democrats want to take us," he said. "And as they try to pull us in the direction of government-dominated Europe, we're going to have to fight as never before to make sure that America stays America." He called Barack Obama weak on national security, stood strong in opposition to a "big-government takeover of health care," and hit congressional Democrats for spending excessively. There was little to distinguish Romney from dozens of other speakers at the conference.
But the crowd loved him. It felt a little like a campaign rally. If Romney runs for president in 2012, this will be his base. But there are two problems that will likely trouble the relationship.
First, catering positions and rhetoric to the CPAC crowd might get Romney through a Republican primary, but it simply will not get him elected president. These people cheered the idea of Newt Gingrich running for president on Thursday. They hooted and hollered when Ron Paul said the poor and foreclosed-upon had no right to go "crying and begging and pleading" to the government. This isn't a political space swing voters or moderate Democrats are ever going to shift to.
Second, there is no way that Romney, if elected, could satisfy CPACers for four or eight years. Elected officials are bound by the realities of politics and the institutions in which they serve. They are forced to compromise, negotiate, and make the best out of bad situations. A President Romney would anger CPAC just like President Bush did. Right-wing Republicans who think they have a savior in Romney should think again – the only way they would be satisfied is if America had a President Limbaugh, assisted by a Congress filled with 100 Senator Limbaughs and 435 Congressmen Limbaughs. For people this extreme, there are no saviors. Just politicians who disappoint the least.