The Obama campaign faces a difficult strategic choice on how to go after Mitt Romney, and its decision could determine the election: Is Mitt Romney an economic royalist and a social extremist who will favor the wealthy while restricting the rights of women and minorities? Or is he the “Etch a Sketch” candidate with more ideological colorations than a chameleon?
The president's camp has chosen door No. 1 for now: right-wing extremist. I understand the decision, but I wonder about its long-term strategic viability. On one level, it makes sense: Romney's current policies on immigration, taxation and women's health are all well outside the mainstream, and their exposition will offend swing voters. But on another, it may give Romney an escape. Romney has one strategic imperative over the next few months: Clean up the ideological mess he made of himself in the primaries. In other words, send little signals that he isn't as conservative as he sometimes had to look to beat Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. The Obama people are rightfully concerned he may get away with this pivot; hence, their desire to hold him accountable through November for the positions he took from January to April.
But here's my worry: Romney is not a right-wing conservative in the Santorum mold. He has morphed so much it's sometimes hard to see the real from the artificial, but on balance, Romney is a traditional, trickle-down economic Republican — a technocrat, who has little real passion on social issues. In the end, this portrait will emerge of Romney, and Obama's strategy will lose its punch.
One amendment to the Obama strategy that might help is to say that Romney's pliability means that he will be co-opted by the Republican extremists in Congress as president, who, in turn, answer to the same base that so troubled him in the primaries. Whatever Romney believes, he has proven both as Massachusetts moderate — who favored a health care mandate, Planned Parenthood and gun control — and now as his party's presumptive presidential nominee who has reversed himself on all the above and more that he will blow with the prevailing wind of his political base.
Right now, those winds blow strongly to the right, so we can take him at his word that he will work with Paul Ryan and appoint more Supreme Court justices like Mr. Scalia. Perhaps the truest description of Mr. Romney's true ideology comes from — mon dieu! — the French: He is a Vichy Republican.