Why Romney Won and How He’s Navigating the Center

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Darren Hauck / REUTERS

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses supporters during his Wisconsin and Maryland primary night rally in Milwaukee, April 3, 2012.

A couple of writers objected to the same sentence in my review of Mike Allen and Evan Thomas’ e-book “Inside the Circus.” The book, I argued, “captures the zeitgeist of what has been, for Republicans, a horribly depressing campaign. A very conservative party is on the verge of nominating a relative moderate whom nobody is very excited about, largely because none of his rivals managed to cobble together a professional operation.” Writing in the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf interpreted “professional operation” as a dig at their feckless staffers, and listed several reasons he thinks are more salient to Romney’s success. I could have been more precise in making this last point, which was that Romney has been buoyed by weak competition — not just his rivals’ staffs, but the candidates themselves. Friedersdorf’s objections actually serve to underscore this argument.

Romney, he writes, benefited from a poor crop of opponents and the decision of potentially stronger opponents (the usual group of white knights, all of whom have glaring flaws of their own) to take a pass. Indeed he did. Even so, Romney struggled to seal the deal. And the blunders of rival campaigns–the candidates, but also their threadbare organizations–undoubtedly helped him. If Rick Santorum had any semblance of a ground game in Michigan, or hadn’t made the tactical blunder of squandering time in the state to stump elsewhere before a crucial primary, he might’ve pulled a landmark upset and reshaped the race. Ditto Ohio, or even Illinois, one of many states where he was beset by ballot woes.

Friedersdorf cites the failure of Jon Huntsman–whose fiscal policies dovetail better with the views of the base than do Romney’s–as evidence that GOP voters are more interested in candidates who “signal tribal solidarity with culture cues and dog whistles.” Maybe so. (Another reason why Santorum, who can dog whistle with the best of ’em, could’ve benefited from decent infrastructure.) But Huntsman’s problem wasn’t his unwillingness to pander. His dog whistles and culture cues were aimed at the wrong party. Jeering at climate-science skeptics and laboring to make yourself Democrats’ favorite Republican was never going to help win over the conservative base. Huntsman certainly gets some of the blame for this gambit, but so too does his staff. I’ll leave it to Allen and Thomas to parcel out who gets how much.

Meanwhile, Paul Waldman at the American Prospect takes issue with the same sentence in my piece, but for a different reason. “Please, reporters: if you’re going to assert that Mitt Romney is a ‘relative moderate,’ you have to give us some evidence for that assertion. Because without mind-reading, we have no way to know whether it’s true,” he writes. I have to think Waldman knows better than to expect reporters to recapitulate Romney’s policy positions in every news article, let alone a book review that is not about Romney’s policies. Nor do I suspect he actually objects to the contention that Romney’s polices are moderate relative to his Republican rivals, an arch-conservative bunch. (If he’s truly perplexed, however, he might start here, with an explanation of Romney’s tax-reform plan–which advocates higher marginal and corporate rates than other Republican candidates and would not cut capital-gains taxes for people who earn more than $200,000 per year.)

Waldman focuses on the word choice to make the point that Romney has, for now, dispensed with his former moderate positions (on health care, abortion, and so on) and embraced a platform that is quite conservative. (“Severely” conservative, even!) This is a point Democrats will hammer at for the next six months as they scramble to block Romney from tacking back to the center after lurching right to appease the base. “Moderate” was an epithet during the GOP primary. But it’s a tag he’ll want to reclaim in the fall as he vies to win the narrow band of swing voters that are likely to decide the election. Obama himself made the case for Romney’s conservatism during a speech on Tuesday, when he tweaked Romney for supporting the Ryan budget, a document “so far to the right it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal.” The line shows that activist Republicans aren’t the only ones worried that once he wraps up the nomination, Romney will promptly pivot to the center. Democrats are worried too.