Steady Hand

02.26.12

Mitt Romney Is a Canny Politician Doing What’s Necessary to Survive the Primaries

The candidate is no fool. He knows the far right controls the GOP primaries, and he’ll say and do whatever it takes to get to the nomination.

Here’s an outrageous proposition. The Republican primary race is not chaos, or a clown show, or a travesty of the political process. It is going exactly as it was meant to go.

Here’s another one. Mitt Romney is not a stumbler, or a bumbler, or a fool. He is a shrewd man painstakingly making his successful way through a complicated situation. Just because I don’t like him doesn’t mean that it makes sense for me to underestimate him.

Why is anyone surprised at the instability of the Republican race? The Republican Party is now mostly a movement. It’s a party only in its upper echelons. You have a relatively small group of Republicans who, thanks to the amplifications of cable and the Internet, and thanks to the liberal media’s pornographic obsession with the hard right, have been wielding a disproportionate influence over the GOP. You have primaries in which traditionally only the hardcore faithful vote—and sometimes, in an open primary, Democrats out to make some trouble. It is hardly a shocker that the most fanatical candidate—first Gingrich, now Santorum—is going to come out on top for a while. There is nothing wild or astonishing about it.

In this fractured situation, it’s only natural that Romney should compartmentalize himself and try simultaneously to appease the fanatical hardcore primary voters while signaling to the swing voters and independents that he is, despite all the signaling, fundamentally sane. Instead of accepting this, however, the media makes him out to be a tin-eared idiot. That would be to perilously misread him.

Was it a mistake for Romney to say that the very poor are taken care of by the safety net, and that he would repair the net if it were torn? On the one hand he was playing to the base, made up mostly of the besieged middle class, by assuring them that they would be the focus of his attention, not the poor. On the other hand, he was playing to moderates and independents by displaying some basic human empathy. But the media reacted to what was clearly a calculated piece of rhetoric as if Romney had a learning disability.

Or consider Romney’s now-notorious declaration that he was “severely conservative.” What a nitwit, everyone cried. He made it sound like a disease! Well, he did, and he didn’t. That Romney thinks of conservatism as a disease would never occur to most conservatives. But that Romney thinks of the new radical right that has alienated so much of the country as some sort of illness might well occur to moderates and independents, which would be to Romney’s advantage.

Make no mistake about Romney’s contempt for the Tea Party and the evangelicals. Not only are they trying to derail him, but their ancestors destroyed his father’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. He loathes them.

By performing his aloofness from and contempt for the radical right, even as he fakes solidarity with it, Romney is doing exactly what he needs to do.

It’s no wonder that Romney doesn’t seem to “feel” the Tea Party’s message, even as he intones it for the sake of expedience. Romney intends for the moderates and independents to feel his emotional detachment from the radical right. When Romney gets criticized for speaking to the Tea Partiers as someone “who mechanically moves his lips in synch with the rest but doesn’t seem to feel the emotional rhythm of the message,” the critic is sleepwalking past the point. The more moderates and independents there are who understand that Romney doesn’t share the emotional rhythms of the Tea Party, the better will be his chances in a general election.

At the same time as Romney is mocked for faking radical-right sentiments, he is also derided for not being radically right enough. He is not one of the “authentic tribunes of the right” like Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, we are told, by writers who contradict themselves a few sentences later and acknowledge that the narrow conservatism of the Tea Party and the evangelicals—today’s authentic right—lacks a wide appeal even among conservatives. In fact, Goldwater the Republican nominee and Reagan the Republican president benefited from a special circumstance that made their extremism palatable to the moderate voter. It was called the Cold War, and its absence makes this right-wing insurgency less substantial and more fragile than any previous right-wing insurgency. Perhaps nostalgia for the old stabilizing anathema is why today's radical right talks about Obama as if he were the very spirit of Soviet communism.

By performing his aloofness from and contempt for the radical right, even as he fakes solidarity with it, Romney is doing exactly what he needs to do. He is keeping the radical right close to him for the general election by seeming to bow to its power, even as he is signaling to everyone else that he knows how miserably inadequate the support of the radical right will be in the general election.

So let’s all calm down and stop getting so excited about a deadlocked convention, and a dark-horse nominee introduced at the last minute, and an imploded Republican opposition. Beyond Super Tuesday lie delegate-rich states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California that are not top heavy with Tea Partiers and evangelicals and that will almost certainly enable Romney to arrive at the convention with a strong hand. And beyond that are the party elites, who were content to use the radical right-wingers but who never liked them, and who tremble at the thought of Candidate Santorum. Finally there are the Tea Partiers and evangelicals who, though hostile to Romney at present, would rather vote for a golden retriever than give Obama another four years in the White House.

What seems like a circus now is serious business, so let us look beyond the circus instead of exaggerating it. The election will come down to Romney and Obama, and it will be decided on the economy and on race. On the economy, if it keeps improving, what Obama has to do is be direct with the American people and forcefully demonstrate to them why, without government, they would not have safety, security, or a viable old age. They either buy that or they don’t. On race, well, all you can do is cross your fingers and hold your breath.