What do you find most often in the middle of the road? Road kill. Mitt Romney, who hopes to be the GOP's next presidential nominee, couldn't bring himself to endorse anyone in New York state's contentious 23rd congressional district special election.
The contest, which features a liberal Republican, Dede Scozzafava, and a conservative one, Doug Hoffman, has been a flashpoint for a party in search of its identity. An all-star lineup of national party leaders has weighed in, allowing themselves to be defined by whose side they're on. But not Romney. The former Massachusetts governor passed, and this could have serious ramifications down the road.
The cliche about the two parties and their presidential selection process is that Democrats "want to fall in love" -- and the GOP "falls in line." The donkeys have emotion-filled knock-down-drag-out affairs involving passionate characters who -- win or lose -- leave a dramatic mark for decades. The GOP dutifully takes note of who came in second the last time and, well, the odds are that he'll be the candidate in the next go-round.
Based on that tradition, Romney should be the favorite for the 2012 nomination. But signs are that the Republican grassroots are in a rebellious mood and may not want to fall in line this time. Over the last year, as the Tea Party movement has gathered steam, it's been clear that its disgust with the nation's outrageous spending is aimed at George W. Bush as much as Barack Obama.
The conservative grassroots have rejected Scozzava, the party's official candidate in New York's 23rd. It started out with the base in the district as conservatives gathered around businessman Doug Hoffman and that rebellion has now gone national. Sarah Palin, using her unique sense of timing, one week ago became the biggest name of in-prime party leaders to endorse Hoffman. Had she stayed on the sidelines, this contest could have played out in predictable fashion: Republicans stayed split and Democrat Bill Owens would have cruised to victory. Instead, by all appearances, the conservative revolt has succeeded. Even the national GOP -- which had endorsed Scozzafava and was slamming outsider Hoffman as much as Democrat Owens -- is now recognizing that district voters seem to flocking to Hoffman.
Outside observers who want to dismiss Palin do so at their peril. But, there appears to be a reason that her basketball-playing nickname was "Barracuda." Recall she was the one who coined (or at least made viral) the phrase "death panel" during the health care fight during the summer -- forcing Democrats and the White House onto the defensive. Whether Palin is doing all this for PR purposes (her book comes out in three weeks) or being reckless in her political rhetoric, the fact is she is having an impact on the broader debate -- and continuing to resonate with her party's base.
Mitt Romney? Not so much. His voice hasn't been heard during the battle over health care. And then, Thursday he gave the vaguest statement on the race:
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"I have chosen not to endorse the Republican candidate in New York's 23rd District," Romney told reporters while campaigning in Virginia for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell. "That should speak a certain amount of volume. I can't endorse our candidate in that race."
Yeah, Mitt, that does speak "a certain amount of volume." It says that you're willing to campaign for a gubernatorial candidate who has had the Virginia race in the bag for months -- but not make a controversial, yet, dynamic decision in a race that would have significant ripples across the country. Palin (and Tim Pawlenty quickly following the former Alaska governor) recognized where the base's train was going and quickly got on board. Romney missed the train -- and missed the opportunity to take a significant role in a tough internal ideological debate that his party is undergoing. Even if Romney endorsed Scozzafava (as former Speaker Newt Gingrich did), at least he would have made a principled decision and could have articulated his reasons for it.
Instead, he looks completely wishy-washy.
It's a long three years before the GOP selects its next presidential nominee. But the guy who wants it ducked a key leadership test real early.
New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots. Follow him on Twitter.