One of the biggest questions about the Republican nomination battle has been this: Will the eventual nominee will wind up having committed to extreme positions that render him weaker in a general election? One the two plausible nominees remaining, Rick Perry, doesn’t hesitate to do so. Will Mitt Romney be dragged into matching him?
Over the weekend, we got another reminder that Rick Perry’s nomination strategy is to pander to the crazy: thus his new birther comments. They fit right in with a campaign that embraced or at least flirted with many of the more goofy Tea Party ideas, such as repealing the direct election of United States Senators. Perry’s campaign pitch is all about presenting himself as a candidate who has conventional credentials for the presidency without sacrificing any of the positions and attitudes conservatives have adopted. It’s not surprising that Perry will soon roll out his own version of a flat tax; it’s an idea that at least in the abstract has appealed to many conservatives for years, even if it always comes up short because the numbers just don’t add up (it’s impossible to flatten tax rates without increasing the relative tax burden on the bulk of Republican primary voters, let alone general election swing voters).
Mitt Romney’s strategy is different: he’s more-or-less staked out a conservativism without the crazy. Oh, he’s campaigning as a hard-line conservative all right. But there’s no birther nonsense there. He’s either avoided or played down many of the positions that might play well among the 20 percent or so most conservative and ideological Republicans, but are vastly unpopular in the nation as a whole.
But how long can Romney refrain from embracing the crazy? If Perry breaks through and winds up seriously challenging Romney in the primaries and caucuses next year, Romney is going to be pushed hard to match him step for step: in a Republican nomination battle that gets defined as moderate vs. conservative, the moderate has no chance. On the other hand, if Romney can dominate from the start, or if his only challengers are fringe candidates such as Cain, Michele Bachmann, or Newt Gingrich, then Romney will be able to emerge from the primaries with relatively little general election baggage, and Republicans will have reason to be quite happy with how the nomination battle played out.
That is, if they can stomach Mitt Romney as their nominee. That part is unknown. If they can, look for a lot of endorsements showing up in the next six weeks or so. If you don’t see them, the best bet is that they’re holding off, hoping that Perry can get his act together. But if they do that, they’re increasing the risk that even though Republicans really aren’t going to nominate someone who’s actually crazy, they’ll likely pick someone who has certainly talked a lot of crazy.