Romney: Still Caught in the Tea Party Vise

Every presidential candidate has to oscillate between courting moderates and energizing his core supporters, but the arc is unusually wide for Mitt Romney. On most issues, there’s a huge gap between his conservative base and the median voter. Most voters want a short-term plan to fix the economy, lower health care costs, higher taxes on the wealthy to lower the defict, lower spending on the military, and higher spending on education and other investments.

The conservative base wants none of those things. Its priorities, as articulated in Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” and Romney’s own economic plan, are large upper-income tax cuts, significant increases to military spending, massive cuts to non-defense government services, and a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They also want a better economy, but these policies are more likely to cause a recession than improve the recovery.

Even for a gifted politician, squaring this circle would be difficult—imagine a world where Bill Clinton had to both win suburban moms and promise to advance the capitalist state to its inevitable destruction. Mitt Romney isn’t a bad politician—he was governor of Massachusetts, after all—but compared to our three most recent presidents, he’s a step down. This would be a problem even if there weren’t a growing divide between Republican Party and the average voter; see the minor diplomatic incident caused during his trip abroad.

With the GOP far to the right of most voters, Romney hasn't been able to make a path that satisfies both without offending either. The New York Times captures some of this with a look at Romney as he campaigns in Colorado—which leans Obama—and Indiana, which he will likely win by a significant margin. Here’s Romney in Colorado:

“We’ve got to have someone that goes to Washington that buries the hatchet and says, ‘You know what? There are good Democrats, there are good Republicans that care about America,’” Mr. Romney said at a rally in a Denver suburb. “Let’s work together to get the American people working.” 

And here he is in Indiana:

During a brief stop on Saturday afternoon here at Stepto’s Bar-B-Q Shack—known for its pulled pork—Mr. Romney did not say anything about the need to work with Democrats. And he avoided mention of issues he and [state treasurer and Republican Senate nominee Richard] Mourdock might disagree on.

But he did underscore his commitment to some Tea Party principles. As he outlined his five-point plan for renewing the economy, his biggest applause line came when he described his proposal to slash government programs.

“You can’t keep spending massively more than you take in, and a treasurer knows that, a governor knows that,” Mr. Romney said, referring to Mr. Mourdock and himself.

Romney has received a lot of criticism for his lack of specifics—as seen in both quotes—but I think that has more to do with his situation than any particular character flaw. Rather than try to please two divergent groups of voters with a single, definitive statement, he’s opted to say nothing, in hopes of offending no one. The upside is that, if the economy gets worse, the strategy might work. The downside is that, if the status quo holds through the fall, voters may feel uneasy about electing someone whose administration remains a mystery—we can guess from his proposals (which lack specifics), but no one really knows what Romney intends to do as president.

At the beginning of the last decade, Mitt Romney made a bet that the Republican Party would eventually want a technocratic moderate to carry its standard—hence his run for governor, and his effective championing of health-care reform. He was wrong. But he still wants to be president. Everything about Romney’s candidacy—from his reliance on bland platitudes to his willingness to lie and distort—stems from that original misjudgment.