Can Mitt Romney Ever Flip Back Again?

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Good-bye, Old Mitt.
Good-bye, Old Mitt. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The deflating open secret of the Iowa caucuses is that they don’t matter. Mitt Romney has won the Republican nomination by default. He was, and remains, wildly vulnerable to a conservative challenger. But the challenger needed to clear a modest threshold: having a national organization, enough money to engage in advertising wars, and the ability to recite standard party dogma in the form of complete sentences. Rick Perry had the first two but fell woefully short of the third. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum could pass the third but not the first two.

Remarkably, the many Republicans who could have beaten Romney all decided not to enter the race or, in the case of Tim Pawlenty, dropped out prematurely. The challengers to Romney devoted all their energies to attacking each other – not a single attack ad against Romney even aired in Iowa. None of his many, enormous vulnerabilities has been exploited. The profusely bleeding, one-armed man managed to swim through shark-infested waters because most of the sharks drowned or decided either to eat each other instead of him.

But what kind of president would Romney be?

George Packer, in a terrific column about the casual acceptance of hysterical charges in the GOP, argues that Romney has crossed a threshold of wingnuttery from which he can never return:

It would be a mistake, though, to believe that, long after Iowa, once the horse race is over, and if he’s elected, Romney could suddenly flip a switch, clear the air of the toxicity left behind by the Republican field, and return to being a cautious centrist whose most reassuring quality is his lack of principles. His party wouldn’t let him; and, after all, how a candidate runs shapes how a President governs. In politics, once a sellout, always a sellout; once a thug, always a thug.

I agree with Packer’s conclusion but not his reasoning. There is actually a pretty close analogue to Romney: George H.W. Bush. The scion of a moderate, Establishment Republican, Bush abandoned his views on abortion and supply-side economics in order to curry favor with a party moving right, and was elected president by running a dishonest and viciously demagogic campaign. Once in office, Bush fulfilled the fears of his conservative critics by governing as a real moderate. The campaign did not shape the presidency.

The difference is that Bush faced a Democratic Congress. If faced with similar circumstances, we would probably see the old Massachusetts Romney reemerge. But, if elected, he is far more likely to enjoy a Republican Congress. An interesting theme in the conservative commentary today is that Republicans, while not thrilled about Romney, truly seem to believe that he will serve as a faithful vessel for the Party’s agenda. Here is Republican member of Congress Tom Cole:

“The real division in the GOP these days is not between moderates and conservatives. It is between pragmatists and ideologues. That same division plays itself out almost every day in the House and Senate GOP Conferences,” Cole continued. “The next GOP president will be forced to govern as a conservative to maintain the support of the GOP rank and file and its caucuses in both the House and Senate. Anyone who thinks we are going to nominate an Eisenhower, Nixon or Ford is out of touch with the GOP electorate. And any GOP politician who believes he can govern from the White House as anything other than a conservative is delusional.”

This is almost surely correct. A President Romney would have little leeway to push a GOP Congress to the center, and he has pledged himself to fulfill the agenda that the Party has already determined. Former Bush administration Minister of Propaganda Pete Wehner echoes, “This year, it seems to me, the party is the sun and the candidates are the planets ... They are trying to prove to primary voters that they are reliable and trustworthy when it comes to the basic platform of the GOP.”

It is surely clear that Romney’s apparent victory was obtained by erasing every last vestige of his old and (I believe, though I can’t be sure) authentic self. At this moment hardly anybody believes that his conversion was actually authentic. The support for him, such as it is, is simply a combination of disqualifying rivals and the assumption that the Party will continue to own him in office.