by Paul Waldman
There’s a script candidates are supposed to follow as they complete the long hard slog that is the modern presidential campaign. In the primaries, you play to the prejudices and desires of your party’s base, the true-believing activists who knock on doors, make phone calls, and get out to vote in those early contests. Then, once you have the nomination secured and your side’s partisans have nowhere else to go, you’re free to shuffle to the center to appeal to the independent voters you’ll need to win the general election. You may not change your positions on major issues, but you’ll alter your emphasis and your tone. You’ll probably start talking—like Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all did—about how if we just bring a new spirit of cooperation to Washington, we can transcend all the partisan bickering and come together as Americans to solve thorny policy problems.
Nearly every non-incumbent nominee does this re-positioning, at least to some degree. Except Mitt Romney. In fact, to look at Romney’s campaign you’d think he was still trying to prove to the Tea Party base of the GOP that he’s every bit as conservative as Rick Santorum (or Newt Gingrich, or Rick Perry, or Herman Cain, or Michele Bachmann). Romney may have had any number of reasons to pick Paul Ryan as his running mate. But it sure looks as though he can’t make a major decision without wondering what the far right of his party would like him to do, and then doing precisely that.
In fairness, up until now he didn’t have much choice. Has there ever been a nominee who had to work as hard to overcome the distrust of his party? For the last five years, Mitt Romney has done anything and everything the Republican base asked of him, and more. Having come from Massachusetts, where he positioned himself as the only kind of Republican who could win in that deeply liberal state, Romney was like a runner who had to do two laps around the track just to get to the starting line where he could begin competing with the other candidates. Change my position on abortion? Of course. Pretend to be a gun enthusiast? I love hunting “small varmints, if you will.” Give the back of my hand to gay Americans to whom I’d previously been supportive? You bet. Switch my stance on climate change and cap and trade? You got it. Come up with a convoluted and utterly unconvincing explanation for why my greatest accomplishment as governor was, when adopted on a national level, the very essence of statist oppression? Coming right up. Romney did it all and more, with the kind of desperate beseeching manner that couldn’t help but inspire a certain contempt in those before whom he genuflected on bended knee.
But now he just can’t stop. I can’t think of a single thing Romney has done—a position he has taken, a statement he has made—that intentionally made the base unhappy. (The one exception might be his spokeswoman’s recent mild praise for his health care law, but it’s far from clear that this was calculated, and in any case, the campaign soon got the message after a conservative outcry.) There has been no “Sister Souljah moment“ and nothing like George W. Bush saying of the Republican House in 1999, “I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor.” The only new issue Romney has introduced since sewing up his party’s nomination is welfare, in a completely misleading attack on the Obama administration that sounds like it came straight from Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” playbook. He hasn’t even tried to convince anyone that he’s really a moderate, lest he risk even a moment’s displeasure from the far right.
When it comes to what could anger his party’s base, the last five years have given Romney exquisitely tuned radar. He made himself a student of their ways and a medium for their ire and resentments. He flinches whenever they look at him funny. His every word and action says to them, “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.” And in Paul Ryan he has given them what they wanted more than anything else: a true believer by his side, someone who wants to tear down the American welfare state and build on the smoldering ruins a government where the wealthy are given their proper deference and everyone else is fed a stern lecture on the need for more bootstrap-pulling.
One of the most common reactions to the Ryan pick is that now we will truly have in this election a debate about fundamental ideology. Which is all to the good. But Mitt Romney may find that after you’ve spent so much time and effort appealing to ideologues, it’s hard to win over the undecided.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.