No Room Here for Moderates

If current polls are right, Mitt Romney could wrap up the GOP nomination tonight. He's set to sweep the Northeast; faces no competition in delegate-rich Virginia, where Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich aren't even on the ballot; and his standing is rising in the southern states where he once looked vulnerable. He's edged ahead of Santorum in recent polls of Ohio, where the former Massachusetts governor has been gaining steam in the past few days. Tennessee—a state in which evangelicals dominate—looks like it will end up a three-way tie between Santorum, Romney, and Gingrich. As Slate's Dave Weigel put it yesterday: "This was what the Romney campaign always wanted and expected … It was Super Tuesday that was supposed to kill the Santorum grassroots campaign, with the live-off-the-land candidate unable to campaign in every state, unable to match Romney's ad spending."

When Romney does land the knockout blow—whether it comes tonight or later this spring—a torrent of competing narratives will pour forth from the media. Writing at The Washington Post, Jonathan Bernstein cautions against one plot line that is sure to emerge: that Romney's victory somehow serves as a sign that Republicans have rejected their extremist instincts and discarded their concerns with social issues. As Bernstein notes, there isn't any meaningful difference between Romney and the rest of the field when it comes to the topics near and dear to conservatives:

The problem with this theory is that all that's really at stake is how, and how frequently, Republican candidates talked about abortion, birth control, and other such issues. In their actual positions on these issues, none of the candidates who ran this year (other than libertarian Gary Johnson and, in some cases, libertarian Ron Paul) differed at all. As far as I can tell, Mitt Romney has the exact same position on gay and lesbian rights, on church/state issues, on abortion, and, yes, on contraception as Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, or even Michele Bachmann.

There's plenty of evidence that Romney has more moderate tendencies than his firebombing opponents. But that matters little for his presidential campaign; Romney's entire political history is defined by his ability to adopt the beliefs of the voters he is courting at the moment, and 2012 has been no different. This go-around, the former Massachusetts governor has latched onto every conservative hot button issue—in just the past week he has backed the Blunt amendment that would allow any employer to deny birth control coverage and answered a small child's question by hawking with the best of the neocons, claiming that Iran "will have a nuclear weapon" should Obama be re-elected.

Romney's typical stump speech has been nothing more than empty pro-America platitudes paired with the typical anti-Obama rhetoric—he's cut out any material that might indicate differences from the standard Republican fare. If, as appears likely, Romney becomes the Republican nominee, it will be because he has spent the past year convincing his severely conservative bona fides that he is one of them—not because the party has come around to his moderation.

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