With Rick Santorum having dropped out of the race, Mitt Romney is apparently the Republican nominee for POTUS, barring a “black swan” event swooping down out of nowhere.
Why has the Republican Party taken so long to decide upon its presidential nominee? The two most common explanations given have been the structure of the primaries and the absence of an “ideal” candidate. Those are valid reasons, but there is one more that generally has been overlooked: The Republican Party itself is in a state of flux, and its new identity has not yet gelled.
The Tea Party message of smaller government has been dominant in the GOP primaries. However, even though the old guard; moderate, country club, establishment—choose whichever cliché you prefer—wing of the party was eclipsed in the nominating process, it remains a formidable force in Washington. This was evident in the recent Senate vote on repealing all subsidies to all private energy companies (conventional and renewable): 19 Republicans voted with every single Democrat against abolishing the subsidies. Also, the very fact that the most conservative budget proposal put forth in Congress by Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)—a plan that, while obviously superior to the Obama alternative which will increase federal spending and debt—shows the present limits of the Tea Party’s influence.
The Republican Party may indeed be evolving into a truly conservative party, but the transformation is far from complete. Many rank-and-file Republicans have been becoming more conservative at different rates, so it is not surprising that the candidates struggled to find the “sweet spot” where one could establish himself as the ideal 2012 Republican.
Although many Republicans were dismayed and disheartened as the primary race dragged on, there is an excellent chance that this sense of malaise will quickly dissipate now that the race is essentially over.
The bickering between the candidates was unpleasant and cast a pall over the nominating process, but that was a passing phenomenon that will soon be forgotten. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich took turns pointing out each other’s past flirtations with interventionist government, while trying to outdo each other in professing to repent of those earlier missteps and emerging as the one genuine, born-again, true-blue conservative.
Ron Paul, meanwhile, who remained un-nominate-able due to his noninterventionist foreign policy (and perhaps even his uncompromising free-market principles), must feel vindicated that his three opponents (in some cases) staked out positions much closer to his consistent, constitutionalist, limited-government philosophy than would have been conceivable four years ago.
The Republican program in 2012 became clear even before Romney emerged as the standard-bearer. The last four men in the primary race—Romney, Paul, Gingrich and Santorum—all agreed: The federal government is too big, the country is in deep trouble, and the presidency of Barack Obama has been disastrous. All four advocated less federal involvement in education, effective control of national borders, lower taxes, fewer bureaucracies, repealing Obamacare, greater freedom to develop domestic energy resources, less social engineering by Washington, etc.
Choosing between Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum was, for many, like choosing between vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream. Their personalities, pasts, and priorities had different flavors, but their philosophies were of the same general type. The presidential election campaign will generate far more enthusiasm among Republicans than the primary race did, because voters will now have a clear-cut choice between Republican ice cream or another helping of Barack Obama’s spinach.
Barack Obama has already laid the groundwork for a very challenging economic environment in 2013. Whoever is president will have to cope with a bruising debt-ceiling battle, the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts, a weak job market, unresolved systemic problems with Social Security and Medicare, a badly deteriorated power grid, and degraded military capabilities—not to mention possible complications resulting from Obama’s feckless foreign policy.
Frankly, I don’t think there is a person on earth who is completely prepared for all the challenges that will confront us during the next four years. I am convinced, though, that if Romney is elected, he will devote himself unreservedly to trying to solve those problems, while Obama would just make them worse. Tea Partiers, moderate Republicans, independents, and anyone else hoping for a change of direction in our country, can either unite behind Mitt Romney or concede defeat to Barack Obama. That is the choice before us.
A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com