Why is Mitt Romney having trouble winning over the conservative Republican base? One reason is his lack of political finesse, an air of dorky rich-guy aloofness that reminds some people of John Kerry. More important, however, is his ideological profile. In almost every important way, Romney’s policy platform is more moderate than those of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Gingrich offers a much more conservative tax plan, along with crowd-pleasing ideas like his plan to sic federal marshals on “radical” liberal judges. Santorum carries a blazing social-conservative torch, championing ideas like a constitutional ban on abortion. Both Gingrich and Santorum talk quite openly about the virtues of bombing Iran. Romney’s temperature runs cooler in all these areas. Not to mention his past record of pro-choice, pro-gay rights positions. As Jon Chait notes today, the GOP establishment is defending Romney but also working hard to push him to the right.
But one reason the establishment is defending Romney is because looks like the most electable candidate. And one reason for that, at least among those who believe presidential elections are won in the center, is because Romney is fairly moderate–especially relative to a party whose core ideas, like cutting entitlements and lower taxes for the wealthy, are not broadly popular.
So keep that in mind as we watch hand-wringing about Romney’s struggle to win the Republican nomination. There’s a persuasive case to be made that being only just barely conservative enough to win the party mantle is exactly where you want to be. Yes, a nominee needs to worry about enthusiasm and base turnout in the fall. But Romney has the specter of a second Obama term to do that work for him. He’s wise to resist short-term pressure to tack right in a primary race he’s likely to win anyway. Locking down the nomination in February is a lower priority, after all, than winning the White House in November.