In advance of Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel gave a tepid endorsement to Mitt Romney, worrying that "Romney's finger-to-the-wind tacking across the political sea leaves us to wonder if he is anchored anywhere," but also citing his "moderate inclinations" and saying, "it's those moderate impulses that make Romney the best candidate. His challengers don't share the same sense of pragmatism or were woefully shortchanged on the temperament gene." But here's the question: What, exactly, is the evidence that Mitt Romney has moderate inclinations?
Here's what we actually know. When Romney ran for Senate and then governor, he was a fairly liberal, pro-choice, pro-gay Republican—in other words, the only kind of Republican who would have had a chance to win in Massachusetts. Then when he ran for president, he became a fire-breathing conservative—the only kind of Republican with a chance to win his party's nomination. The only way you can conclude that he's a moderate in his heart is if you believe his "true" ideology can be ascertained just by averaging the candidate he was in Massachusetts and the candidate he has been in Republican presidential primaries, and then presto, that average gives you the candidate he'll be in the general election.
But there's no reason to think that's true, or to think he actually has "moderate impulses," or any particular ideological impulses at all. There's a difference between a moderate ideology and a lack of ideology, and it seems pretty clear by now that Romney has the latter, not the former. Which isn't necessarily such a terrible thing.
Some of this is covered in a satirical piece in the New York Times by David Javerbaum, in which he offers a quantum theory of Mitt Romney:
Complementarity. In much the same way that light is both a particle and a wave, Mitt Romney is both a moderate and a conservative, depending on the situation (Fig. 1). It is not that he is one or the other; it is not that he is one and then the other. He is both at the same time.
Probability. Mitt Romney’s political viewpoints can be expressed only in terms of likelihood, not certainty. While some views are obviously far less likely than others, no view can be thought of as absolutely impossible. Thus, for instance, there is at any given moment a nonzero chance that Mitt Romney supports child slavery.
Uncertainty. Frustrating as it may be, the rules of quantum campaigning dictate that no human being can ever simultaneously know both what Mitt Romney's current position is and where that position will be at some future date. This is known as the "principle uncertainty principle."
Entanglement. It doesn't matter whether it's a proton, neutron or Mormon: the act of observing cannot be separated from the outcome of the observation. By asking Mitt Romney how he feels about an issue, you unavoidably affect how he feels about it. More precisely, Mitt Romney will feel every possible way about an issue until the moment he is asked about it, at which point the many feelings decohere into the single answer most likely to please the asker.
Javerbaum is just kidding around here, but while I am on board with the entanglement part—Romney's opinion is like Schrodinger's cat, both alive and dead until it is observed—overall I think that Romney's ideology is better explained by ordinary Newtonian mechanics. The positions he will take are, in fact, predictable. There are a finite number of places Romney could end up on a particular issue, and if you can add up all the influences on him, you could come up with an equation that would give you the answer.
Remember that Romney's positions aren't subject to a different set of independent variables than the positions of any other politician. It's just that one big variable—conviction—is absent. There's a chance that Rick Santorum or any other true-believing politician would reverse his position on any issue. In most cases, that chance is much, much, smaller than the chance Romney will, but it's still greater than zero.
Let's take the individual mandate as an example. Almost every Republican who ever expressed an opinion about it before 2009 has since reversed themselves on it, and that includes many true-believing conservatives. When it comes to the mandate, they're all Romneys. Why? Because they never had much in the way of real convictions about it in the first place. Between 1993 (when Bill Clinton's reform effort failed) and 2009, they just didn't care about the issue of health care. So when the tiny number of conservatives who did bother thinking about it said, "Here's a conservative approach, the individual mandate," they said, "Sure, I'm in favor of that." But then when the political situation changed, they changed their position, like Romney has done so many times on so many issues. Absent conviction, the political influences of the moment were all that mattered.
Because we have no real examples of Mitt Romney standing his ground on an issue in the face of real political danger, we have no reason to believe he has any particular convictions that are likely to influence him in the future. So the best way to figure out what he'll do is to determine which political forces are going to be acting on him. That includes the broader electorate, which will pull him toward the center, and a very restive Republican base, which will pull him to the right as it always threatens to desert him. While the calculation will be different on each issue, my guess is that in broad terms what we'll see is a slightly more moderate Mitt, as he tries to move just enough to reassure independents without alienating conservatives. And you don't need to know anything about his "impulses" to figure that out.