By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Republican leaders had all kinds of things to talk about in their first day back on Capitol Hill from their monthlong recess.
They spoke about jobs and the economy, about military spending and automatic budget cuts, about the national debt and the need for energy legislation.
But there was one thing House Republican leaders did not mention in their statements to the cameras after Tuesday morning’s caucus: Mitt Romney.
They uttered 1,350 words in their opening remarks at the news conference but made no reference to the party standard-bearer who would be at the top of their ticket in just 56 days.
NBC’s Luke Russert tried to help the lawmakers address this omission. “Governor Romney said that it was a bad decision for Republicans to agree to the bipartisan debt deal,” he pointed out. “What’s your response to him?”
House Speaker John Boehner, who negotiated the deal, looked unwell.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that worked harder than Eric and I to try to work with the president to come to an agreement,” he said, with Majority Leader Eric Cantor standing just behind him. Boehner tried to pin the agreement’s automatic cuts in defense spending on President Obama, but he ultimately defended the package: “Somehow, we have to deal with our spending problem.”
That Romney would go on “Meet the Press” and say that last year’s bipartisan spending deal was a “mistake” — never mind that Romney had applauded Boehner for negotiating the deal at the time — made clear that the GOP nominee does not wish to run on the record of congressional Republicans.
That House Republicans would not so much as breathe Romney’s name makes clear the sentiment is mutual.
The seven leaders at the microphone didn’t mention Romney even when asked about him — as though he is some sort of political Voldemort. Instead, they kept contrasting House Republicans’ record on jobs bills with those of Senate Democrats and the White House while leaving Romney out of it.
For good measure, the Republican lawmakers also praised a bill that would remove trade restrictions on Russia, a country Romney has called “our No. 1 geopolitical foe”; Romney opposes the trade measure unless Russia is also punished over human rights.
The estrangement seen in the past few days is part of a broader dynamic in which the Republican Party seems to be readying itself to cut and run from its nominee. At the convention in Tampa, a gaggle of younger Republicans — Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Nikki Haley, Rand Paul — delivered speeches light on mentions of Romney and heavy on self-promotion. Overall, Romney was mentioned far less at his convention than Obama was at the Democratic convention.
This tepidity furthers the impression that Romney is a placeholder for the next generation of Republicans, tempered by partisan squabbles and disciplined by conservative activists, and unwilling to negotiate or compromise. Romney himself, though a businessman by temperament, had to affect the younger Republicans’ mannerisms to win the nomination. He further ingratiated himself with the young conservatives by tapping as his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan — one of a trio of self-styled “young guns” in the House, with Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
In the House GOP caucus meeting Tuesday, Boehner told his members privately that the choice of Ryan “validated all the work House Republicans have done over the past 19 months.” Boehner is correct about that. The Ryan choice was a bow to where the power is in the party, where it’s going and who its future leaders are. If Romney wins, congressional conservatives would drive his agenda from Capitol Hill. If Romney loses, congressional conservatives would immediately inherit the party in preparation for 2014 and 2016.
Either way, it promises to be a cacophony. At the news conference that followed the caucus gathering, a campaign-style backdrop proclaimed “Focused on American Jobs” and repeated the phrase “American Jobs” 30 times. But it was also Sept. 11, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington argued that the hijackers “didn’t attack us as a Republican or a Democrat; they attacked us as Americans, and we would do well to remember that.”
The leaders had difficulty sticking to either theme in their zeal to campaign against the president: Boehner said he was “not confident at all” about avoiding downgrades of U.S. debt, accusing Obama of being “absent without leave.”
Actually, Obama has been present; Republicans just find his presence objectionable. The notable absence from congressional Republicans’ calculations is Romney.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.