Last night I almost felt sorry for presidential aspirant, Mitt Romney. You had the impression he was in the middle of an oral exam – rattling off population statistics and geographical facts as if to prove he’s got foreign policy down cold. At the same time, Romney was unable to differentiate his views from those that have been advanced by the president in the last four years, thus leaving his position diminished. “What you just heard Governor Romney say,” Obama observed, “is he doesn’t have different ideas, and that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate, Syrian leadership and a — an effective transition so that we get Assad out. That’s the kind of leadership we’ve shown. That’s the kind of leadership we’ll continue to show.”
Why did Romney get caught in this strategic bind? The answer lies in two places. First, women have become increasingly important in the last stages of this campaign. While mostly male commentators hailed Romney’s command of the first debate and claimed a tie in the second, what appeared to be excessive aggressiveness was a “turn off” for many women. By moderating his tone, Romney aimed at making women more comfortable with his candidacy, which simultaneously helped his move to capture the middle ground.
As Romney’s messages have become more centrist over the last few weeks, his poll numbers have improved. That’s why his implied commitment to finding bipartisan solutions was central to his closing arguments. “America’s going to come back. And for that to happen, we’re going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle,” he said. He went on to relate his experience in Massachusetts where the statehouse was controlled by Democrats.
This is a classic. But beware.
Just because Romney now says he wants to cooperate in a bipartisan way doesn’t mean other members of the Republican Party will agree. If Romney is indeed the centrist he once was in Massachusetts, there are structural reasons why as president he would have difficulty governing from the middle. A Romney election may well bring, on his coattails, many more conservatives to Congress. His base there will determine a great deal of what he can accomplish. In the foreign policy realm, where Romney has little personal experience, he will be heavily reliant on his advisors, most of whom are neocons as well as former Bush administration officials. On the domestic front, Romney will also be indebted to the party faithful. He will need to give many of them top spots in his administration. Since he will undoubtedly wish to seek a second term he will also be constrained by how close to the center he is allowed to get. Even John Boehner, as Speaker of the House, has not been able to restrain the effects of the Tea Party on his own capacity to lead.
It is worth remembering that George W. Bush ran a noteworthy centrist campaign in 2000. In the Bush- Gore debate at Wake Forest University on Oct. 11, 2000, Bush said: “I am worried about over-committing our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. I don’t think nation-building missions are worthwhile.” A little more than two years after his election, the United States preemptively attacked Iraq—spurred on largely by the GOP’s neo-cons. Before Bush’s second term was over the United States was in engaged in what would turn out to be the two longest wars in US history, costing trillions of dollars to execute, and subjecting our troops to three, four and even five deployments.
I met Mitt Romney in 2008. One of four to have breakfast with the GOP candidate, I found him to be friendly, personable and smart. Ultimately, however, I was more impressed by one Senator Barack Obama, whom I had seen, firsthand, solicit the opinions and ideas of people outside of Democratic circles. This inspired me to register as an Independent and support his bid for the presidency.
Last night the “real” Romney tacked back to the middle, but it may have been too little, too late. It is Romney’s bad luck that the extreme of his party is farther to the right than ever before. But he should still be judged on what he said during primary season. If Romney uttered unfortunate sound bites, it is to some degree an indication that he has been unable to stand up to members of his own party.
If Mitt Romney loses the presidency that he so deeply desires, his party will be partly to blame. But at the end of the day, it will be a Romney no one really knows who faces the voters at the ballot box.