If Mitt Romney ever becomes president, it will be because his supporters are convinced that he’s a liar.
The Republican Party elite isn’t convinced by his attempts to reinvent himself as a right-wing firebrand. The establishment Republicans, business executives and independents who are Romney’s natural constituency believe he is lying when he strikes a conservative posture on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and when he engages in fatuous Washington-bashing.
“Oh, he has to say stuff like that,” they say, attempting to explain away his various panderings to the Tea Party and the far right. They believe that once in office, his true nature as an establishment, moderate, pro-business Republican will emerge. They believe he’s fundamentally sound.
Meanwhile, the right-wingers who will soon be asked to bury their dreams and support Romney are not under any delusions about his true nature. But they’ll eventually prove willing to overlook it in their hunger to defeat President Barack Obama. Republicans are basically where Democrats were in 1992, when my mantra was, “OK, OK, I’m for Clinton. Just don’t tell me anything about him.”
Republicans smell victory (unless something terrible happens, like the economy improving). After all that revolutionary talk, in the end they will make the safe, conventional choice. No unknown pizza honcho. No Thatcheresque right-wing disciplinarian. No overly principled crank devoted to dismantling the Federal Reserve. No has-been on the one hand or novice on the other. Just a good old-fashioned smart, white, male, almost laughably presidential-looking former governor and successful businessman to guide us through the economic storms. Vetted four years ago, so no surprises.
Last of Breed
There used to be a whole wing of the Republican Party full of people like this. They were called “liberal” or “moderate” or sometimes “Rockefeller” Republicans. Now Romney is about the only one left. And he does his best to hide it.
Romney’s campaign is hoping he gets through the primaries without losing his appeal to independents and moderate Democrats in the general election. Meantime, his attempts to enlist the right are like serving haggis (sheep’s stomach stuffed with oatmeal -- yum!) to your distant cousins from Scotland when they visit. You can’t stand the stuff, but they’re supposed to like it.
Unlike haggis, Romney doesn’t generate much warmth. Even the frighteningly austere Rick Perry had his Jimmy Stewart moment when he said that anyone who would deny in-state college tuition to children of illegal immigrants “has no heart.” There has been no equivalent moment for Romney (though he’ll have one scripted if necessary).
If your strategy is, as Romney’s seems to be, appealing to voters on the grounds that you don’t really believe what you’re saying, that renders the matter of intellectual coherence moot. Perry has developed a reputation -- probably unjustified -- as a dimwit. The Bloomberg-Washington Post debate on Oct. 11 is Perry’s last chance to prove otherwise before the casket is permanently sealed. (Perhaps he should give his opening statement in Latin.) Romney, meanwhile, says nonsensical things, but they are nonsensical on a higher intellectual plane than Perry’s controversial remarks, so they are considered evidence of a sharp, smooth-running campaign.
Conservatives seem to believe they can keep Romney on a tight leash. Having flipped and flopped on so many issues, even Romney won’t have the nerve to flip again. In this hope, they may be underestimating their man. As Steve Kornacki demonstrated on Salon.com, Romney has been all over the lot on the otherwise defining issue of abortion, flipping forward and back several times, depending on the needs of the moment.
Amend, or Not
Having once said he was pro-choice “and you will not see me wavering on this,” Romney now says he favors a human life constitutional amendment and legislation to make clear that “unborn children” are covered by the 14th amendment. He also says that he believes abortion is a matter best left to the states. Of course, applying the 14th amendment to the unborn would nationalize abortion policy and make it impossible for the states to have policies of their own. Romney has figured a way out of the contradiction: The country isn’t ready for a human life amendment. But when it is ... Talk about leading from behind!
More important, if “unborn children” have full 14th amendment rights, including “equal protection of the law,” you couldn’t treat a woman who obtains an abortion any differently than a woman who kills her children. Yet Romney says that the woman who has an abortion should not be punished at all.
The list of logical contortions goes on. Romney ridicules Perry’s notion of turning Social Security over to the states (a ridiculous idea indeed). But he insists that the health-care plan he enacted in Massachusetts was far superior to Obama’s health-care overhaul precisely because it is on the state level, not a federal program (which he says he will close down his first day in office). Romney opposes embryonic stem cell research but has no objection to fertility clinics that produce thousands of embryos and throw most of them away.
No one thinks Romney is a dimwit. He’s what the British call “too clever by half.” Which is worse?
(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.