Friday, April 13, 2012

Romney’s other box

WITH RICK Santorum out of the way, and the sputtering campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul effectively nonexistent, the path is clear for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to rightly take the role he’s laid claim to for months: presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency. And now it gets interesting.

It gets interesting because now, for the first time, with no serious competition between him and the nomination he’s sought for years, the American public has a chance to see Mitt Romney as he shifts to general-election mode. One might be inclined to say it’s a chance to see “the real Mitt Romney,” if only we had a clue what that looks like.

That fact alone is one of his biggest matters for him to overcome between now and November. An unlikely coalition, as close to bipartisan as anything in this strange season, is working to force the real Mitt Romney to please stand up, please stand up. And the candidate who’s been preaching to the choir in the primary season faces the challenge of finding what he needs to win on Election Day: a much bigger choir.

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Romney’s campaign has always tried to convey a sense of inevitability. This bid for the presidency, run like a cross between a military operation and a hostile takeover, got where it is by spending whatever it took to get the job done. And only part of what the Romney campaign spent was money.

The other capital — political credibility — has been spent by the candidate himself, and spent at a furious clip. In achieving his current status as the last frontrunner standing, Romney has put himself in untenable positions on a panorama of public-policy issues.

Last August, he signed a pledge to oppose gay marriage and to support a federal amendment barring marriage to same-sex couples.

He endorsed the repeal of Roe v. Wade; he's promised to dismantle Planned Parenthood; he was on board with the draconian Blunt-Rubio amendment. He's called for the ruinous process of foreclosure to accelerate for economically purgative purposes; he recommended much the same thing vis-à-vis bankruptcy as a palliative for an ailing Detroit.

But that was then, in the runup to and in the heat of a primary campaign that (given the competition on the campaign trail) he was likely to win anyway. Now, Romney faces an audience of the American people in the aggregate, and many of the positions he took in the primaries will have no traction for him in the new season now underway.

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Take his stance on Planned Parenthood (“we’re gonna get rid of that,” he told a reporter on March 13). For millions of women who rely on Planned Parenthood for a myriad of health services that have nothing to do with abortion, that’s likely to be a huge nonstarter in November. So is his full-throated support (in January) of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, or his February backing (almost immediately retracted) of Blunt-Rubio, which would have let employers make exemptions on health-care coverage based on how they felt about the morality of birth control — effectively replacing doctors with employers on a powerfully personal matter.

These and other positions Romney’s taken in the primary season will be his undoing. The candidate whom Joan Walsh of Salon said “looks like somebody trying to do an imitation of a regular guy” isn’t a masterful politician in the first place. We’ll watch with interest as he tries to reverse course and steer his campaign back to the navigable, palatable, populist political center.

The passion and energy he expressed in staking out those positions mean there’s really no way he can stop from sailing off the edge of the flat earth his policy ideas suggest he believes in.

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BUT THERE’S a bigger problem Romney faces in an attempt to tack back to centrist realities. He can’t reverse course because the more extremist forces of the Republican Party — the real Severely Conservative conservatives — won’t let him make that pivot.

In the runup to the primaries, and more recently, Romney has wooed the Tea Party and other conservative groups with pledges to repeal the Obama health-care law, privatize Medicare and support the deeply unpopular budget offered by Congressman Paul Ryan. Those are pledges they’ll hold him to, regardless of the distaste for those policy prescriptions shared by a broad cross-section of the country.

Throughout the campaign, Mitt Romney put himself in a philosophical box by lashing his campaign to the mast of improving the economy — something that’s been happening organically for many long months without him.

Now, as the all-but-certain nominee, he’s in another box of his own making: having staked out positions on a range of issues that Republicans will demand he follow through with — the same positions Democrats and the Obama re-election campaign will dare him to follow through with.

Image credits: Romney: Reuters/Darren Hauck. Editorial cartoon: Steve Breen/San Diego Union-Tribune.  

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