Earlier this year, I wrote a cover story for The American Prospect where I disputed the idea that Mitt Romney would govern as a moderate if elected president, even if he ran to the center against President Obama. Romney will almost always face pressure and mistrust from the right-flank of the Republican Party. And because those voters and activists are key to his political success, he’ll do everything he can to satisfy their demands. Satisfying the right-wing of the Republican Party is not a particularly good way of passing broad-based, pragmatic policy.
Underlying the piece, however, was a general assumption — that conservatives would let Romney run a non-ideological campaign that leaned on his time as governor of Massachusetts. Movement conservatism is still a hard sell for the general public, and if voters are looking for anyone, it’s someone who can fix the economy — not a right-wing crusader.
As it turns out, this was a terrible assumption. If there is any one thing that has defined Mitt Romney’s campaign for the White House, it’s that he’s running the campaign of a conservative ideologue. It didn’t start that way; he began the summer by hitting Obama on the economy. But as Democrats turned up the heat on Bain Capital — and neutralized his advantage as an economic manager — Romney turned right to fill the gap.
Now — between the false attacks on Obama’s welfare policies, the promise to never “apologize” for America, the presence of Paul Ryan on the ticket, and Romney’s crass and aggressive response to last week’s attacks abroad — it’s clear that Romney is running a campaign for conservatives, with almost nothing to offer to swing voters and independents. It’s as if his primary campaign never ended. His only strategy for winning them, it seems, is to flood the airwaves with ads arguing that the Obama economy is in shambles, and hope that they break against Obama. This would make sense if the economy were in his favor, but it’s not. Despite the conventional wisdom otherwise, Romney is swimming upstream against economic fundamentals that favor the president.
Romney’s strategy is a high risk/high reward one. If he’s elected president, he’ll have more space to pursue conservative ends. But if he loses, he will have offered a powerful argument against running on right-wing ideas. Moderate Republicans (or what’s left of them) will understand this. Conservatives, of course, will conclude otherwise: They will argue that Romney lost because he wasn’t conservative enough. Conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed. This is why a Romney loss is likely to cause a civil war within the party.