In the Arena

Mitt Romney’s Hairfire Manifesto

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In my print column this week, which can be found here if you’re a TIME subscriber, I explore the implications of Mitt Romney’s declaration that he wouldn’t set his “hair on fire” by making the sort of outrageous comments about the President that his opponents have used to boost their poll ratings. This is a crucial moment: For the first time, Romney has made it clear there is something he won’t do to win the nomination. 

Romney has been a dismal candidate, for reasons obvious and subtle. The obvious reasons were on display again today as he withdrew his opposition to a Senate bill that would allow employers to decide, for reasons of faith or conscience, not to cover birth control pills in the insurance policies they offer their employees.* He just can’t seem to walk a straight line. And, as E.J. Dionne writes today, his rich-guy gaffes betray a rather noxious political philosophy.

(MORE: Romney’s Challenge in Ohio)

Romney’s more subtle problem is this: if you’re going to posit yourself as “electable”–that is, attractive to a general electorate broader than the Republican Party’s base–you have to take positions will actually attract moderates and independents. Bill Clinton did that by promising to “reform welfare as we know it” in 1992 (he delivered, too); George W. Bush did that by offering the promise of a softer “compassionate conservativism” (with a few notable exceptions, like his support for AIDs relief in Africa, Bush didn’t deliver). Romney has done nothing to reassure moderate voters that he won’t be a nutter. He may be a “moderate” in the current Republican Party, but he has been campaigning as, well, a severe conservative if you consider the larger political spectrum.

The Hairfire Manifesto may be an indication that Romney is getting tired of being dragged to the right by his party. We’ll see.

*Actually, I think the Republicans have a pretty strong position with the contraception bill–a position easily distorted and caricatured by liberals, but one we need to think about carefully. Should the government be able to mandate that employers must insure birth control pills for employees? How would you feel if the opposite were being offered: a bill that forbade employers from offering insurance for birth control (or abortion, for that matter)? I think there are certain lines that government just shouldn’t cross–in either direction.

(MORE: Romney Fends Off Fierce Santorum Challenge to Win Michigan Primary)

And for those who think this makes me anti-contraception, let me be clear: I’m in favor of sex education classes where contraception is discussed. I’m in favor of the widest possible private campaigns to make birth control, and morning-after pills, available to those who can’t afford them (and for those sexually active teens who don’t want their parents to know). I’m just not sure that it is appropriate for the federal government to mandate or forbid these practices.