In March 2003, a then fairly obscure former Vermont governor and presidential candidate named Howard Dean stood up in front of a meeting of the California Democratic Party, opened his speech by criticizing the timidity and fearfulness of Democrats in Washington, and said to hearty cheers, "I'm Howard Dean, and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party!" Rank-and-file Democrats were amazed and excited. Dean perfectly captured their frustration with national leaders whom they felt were wimps and capitulators, failing to stand up to a Republican president whom they disliked more than any other in their lifetimes.
In short order Dean became the candidate of the most partisan Democrats, and the news media portrayed him as some kind of wild-eyed liberal busting into the race from the extreme fringe. But the truth was that Dean was actually a moderate Democrat. He had opposed the Iraq War from the start, that was true. But he had also been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, and generally cut a profile in Vermont as a pragmatic center-left governor. Voters and reporters mistook his pugnacious style for a policy liberalism that wasn't really there, or at least wasn't any different from any of the establishment candidates against whom he ran.
I don't know whether or not they were inspired by Dean's story, but Mitt Romney and his advisors seem to have figured out that in this model there lies the key to securing the conservative base of the GOP that has distrusted Romney for so long. In order to win their loyalty, Romney doesn't need to "move to the right." He just needs to be a jerk. McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed explains:
"I unquestionably see more excitement on the right as Mitt Romney takes the gloves off and comes out fighting," said Kat McKinley, a Tea Party activist and blogger. "The more he does the opposite of what John McCain did, which was NOT fight, the more conservatives will like him.”
Romney’s aides and advisors tick off a series of punches and counterpunches that form the core of this new brand of conservative outreach, beginning with his staff’s decision to turn Democrats’ absurdist attacks on his treatment of a family dog into an absurdist assault on Obama’s memory of having eaten dog meat as a boy in Indonesia...
Also part of this pattern has been the campaign's refusal — mystifying to liberals and the media that praised McCain — to stand up Trump's birther crusade. President Obama has even questioned the candidate's "moral leadership" as a result of his alliance with The Donald. But the Romney campaign sees instances like McCain's publicly rebuking a supporter who called Obama an "Arab" as moments of political weakness — the equivalent of throwing the base into an ice bath when he most needed them fired up.
I wouldn't take the Dean analogy too far, because his aggressive posture toward George W. Bush was almost entirely about policy, especially the Iraq War, which was the defining issue of 2004. For Romney, on the other hand, this new posture seems to be entirely about things that aren't issues at all (like playing footsie with birthers) or things that have some relationship to policy but are really just barely relevant distractions (like Solyndra).
In the past, I've always assumed that when Romney failed to stand up to his craziest supporters, it was just because of fear. But now it seems that he's doing it with relish. At the end of Coppins' article, he tells a Romney aide that conservatives are now comparing the Romney campaign's tactics to those of Andrew Breitbart, the recently deceased internet provocateur, con artist and hate-monger, who did more to debase and poison our public discourse than anyone in the last decade or two. "Oh great," the aide responded, "that's what we were going for." Congratulations, Mitt—your dad would be proud.