The big surprise at this point in the election is not that Mitt Romney is turning out to be such a bad candidate. His weaknesses were always well known, and even now, they're likely overstated. He's proven an able campaigner, an extraordinary fundraiser, and more than capable of uniting his party. But if he is, in some ways, a better candidate than many expected, he's also proving to be a much more conservative candidate than anyone expected.
What Romney actually believes is an unusually tricky question fraught with metaphysical and epistemological uncertainty. But in terms of the recent comments and decisions that have gotten him in trouble, some of them are campaign missteps, but most of them are an unexpectedly doctrinaire application of the conservative worldview -- the sort of stuff that gets a standing ovation at CPAC, but that gets Republicans into trouble among more general audiences.
Romney's sentiments on the 47 percent, for instance, are almost as common among conservatives as "don't tread on me" bumper stickers.
Last year, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) told the Heritage Foundation, "We're coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition."
In an interview with the libertarian magazine Reason, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said, "we're on a track where 60 percent are getting something from government and 40 percent are paying for it. You can't sustain a democracy with that mix."
Rush Limbaugh agrees. “We have 47, 48 percent who pay no income taxes," he said in July. "We have 3 million more off the unemployment rolls and on the disability rolls, and they all vote.”
When the Occupy Wall Street protests led to a popular Tumblr entitled "We are the 99 percent," conservatives quickly posted a response Tumblr entitled "We are the 53 percent" -- so named for the proportion of Americans who pay federal income taxes.
Republican consultant Patrick Ruffini summed it up simply: "The media probably didn't know that this 53/47 thing is common currency on the right." Nor, I'd guess, did the public.
Romney's comments were, in his own words, "not elegantly stated." But the underlying argument wasn't something he came up with on the spot. It's something that's been floating around conservative circles for some time now. And it's the underlying argument, not the precise phrasing, that's causing Romney such problems.
Or take Romney's statement on Egypt and Libya. More than anything else, it was a hasty and overly public application of the common conservative complaint that President Obama's first instinct on foreign policy is to sympathize with, and apologize to, our enemies. A wiser politician might have waited a few more hours before releasing that statement, or perhaps he would have held his tongue altogether. But the root problem for Romney was that, depending on how you see it, he either believed what he said or he believed it was the thing he should say or both. That's a mistake that comes from too much immersion in the contemporary conservative subculture.
Perhaps Romney's biggest and most ongoing problem is his tax plan, which seems to require either a tax hike on the middle class or a huge increase in the deficit, and has gotten him fairly accused of cutting taxes on the rich. It's often forgotten, but this is actually Romney's second tax plan. His initial tax proposal -- which you can still see in his jobs plan -- was simply to extend the Bush tax cuts and give Americans making less than $250,000 a cut on their capital gains rate. That would've been a much easier proposal to defend in the general election.
It was only when former presidential candidates Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, all of whom had much more ambitious tax cut plans, began rising in the polls that Romney brought out his more sweeping proposal. It was, in other words, an effort to remain in step with the conservative base's tax policy preferences. But it's given Romney a policy problem he can't solve, or even explain.
Similarly, Romney chose Ryan to be his vice president, yoking himself to Ryan's budget and to the House GOP. In one day, Romney took the basic strategy of the campaign, which was to make this election a referendum on Obama's leadership, and made it a choice election, with Romney standing side-by-side with the architect of the chief governing document of contemporary conservatism.
This is all something of a surprise. The basic case for Romney during the primaries was that he might not be particularly conservative, but he could win. In fact, he's run an extremely conservative -- he might say "severely conservative" -- general campaign and it's perhaps the main reason he might lose.