The blogosphere is going to town on this exchange with Eric Fehrnstrom on CNN:
JOHN FUGELSANG, POLITICAL COMEDIAN: Good morning, sir. It’s fair to say that John McCain was considerably a more moderate candidate than the ones that Governor Romney faces now. Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?
FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.
But I will say, if you look at the exit polling data in Illinois, you’ll see that Mitt Romney is broadly acceptable to most of the factions in the party. You have to do that in order to become a major party nominee. He’s winning conservatives. He’s winning Tea Party voters. He’s winning men, women; he’s winning Catholics and Protestants.
There is a growing recognition within the Republican Party that Mitt Romney is going to be the nominee. And there’s two reasons for that. The first is, people see in him the capacity of someone who can lead on the economy. And, secondly, they see someone who can defeat Barack Obama.
The question immediately before Fehrnstrom’s answer is asking whether the attacks in the primary will resonate in the general election. Fehrnstrom denies it, saying the primary fights will not splash over into the general election. In fact, the arguments in the primary campaign by Romney critics, especially Santorum, have been that Romney is too moderate. Fehrnstrom is saying the obvious: In the general election, the race is not going to be “Is Romney too moderate?” but “Is he a wide eyed, radical Republican who’s gong to throw grandma over the cliff?” Everything will change. He doesn’t say — and it’s ludicrous to allege that someone as experienced as Fehrnstrom would say so — “Get ready for the flip flops!” He plainly meant it’s going to be a whole new ballgame fending off the Obama team.
In the second part, Fehrnstrom underlines the point that Romney doesn’t have to change his positions at all — because he is already acceptable to the broad swath of Republicans. (So no, there is not a danger he would have to go “so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election.”)
In fact the question and answer with Ron Brownstein that directly follows Fehrnstrom makes the same point: the landscape changes:
SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: I want to ask a quick question of Ron Brownstein. Do you think that’s true? Do you think it’s an etch a sketch analogy. Once the primary is done, you get to 1,144; the deal is done, everybody forgets and you kind of reset?
BROWNSTEIN: You get a second look. There’s no question about it. It is not a complete blank slate. There are positions that Romney has taken on a variety of issues particularly those related to Hispanics and to some extent the debate over contraception and its effect on college educated women that he’s going to have to deal with going forward. But there is no doubt. Bill Clinton came out of the 1992 primary bruised and battered. He got a second look and ultimately won. You do get a second chance but it is not as though the slate is completely blank.
Brownstein is saying the opposite of the current critics: that Romney will get a reintroduction but will have to fend off attacks from the left.
The irony is great here. The same right-wing bloggers who have pummeled Romney all along for being insufficiently conservative now say he’s telegraphing that he will be moderate in the general campaign. Huh? Indeed, Santorum has been complaining all along that Romney is too moderate. So if he’s been a moderate, he’d be fine as is in the general election, right? Santorum’s spokesman, after months of calling Romney a moderate, now claims he’s dying to get back to his true stripes — being a moderate.
This is par for the course for campaigns, but why does the media have to play along, suspending all powers of critical analysis to see if the critique even make sense? This is the downside of the New Media — a perverse fascination with non-gaffe gaffes and a desire to justify their own prior punditry (He’s going to sell out the right!) But the proof will be in the pudding. If Romney continues with the same agenda and the same pitch, will the frenzied bloggers and tweeters admit they got it wrong? Of course not. It’ll be ancient history by then. But it is interesting to note that now virtually everyone understands that to beat Obama you can’t be a crackpot right-winger. Those GOP voters were pretty smart in finding the guy who is insufficiently conservative to meet that definition, eh?
UPDATE (2:05 p.m.): A thoughtful analysis by Guy Benson is here.