As we all know, Mitt Romney's biggest problem in the 2012 Republican primaries is that conservatives don't trust him, given that he used to be a pro-choice moderate who got health coverage for Massachusetts' uninsured. His answer to this problem has been to run frantically to the right, staking out the most extreme position he can on any issue that comes up (his latest is an attack on lazy unemployed people). But the truth is this strategy is going to fail.
What Mitt needs to understand is that voters don't make judgments based on checklists. If a true-blue conservative wants to choose his primary candidate based on ideological affinity, all the screamingly right-wing op-eds in the world won't make a difference. It's a feeling, an identification, a sense that the candidate is "one of us." And Mitt just ain't. He's going to have to find some other way to win them over.
That isn't to say ideology doesn't matter -- Romney will have to convince them that he's conservative enough, passing a threshold of ideological acceptability. But he seems to be trying to prove he's the most conservative, and that won't work. Which is why he really needs Sarah Palin to enter the race.
If Palin gets in, she'll have the crazy vote locked down, and that will take the pressure off Romney. If the only thing that matters to you is finding a candidate who hates liberals as much as you do, the choice will be clear. Voters who care about other things -- like who has a chance to beat Obama, who seems to know what he's talking about, whose jaw is the squarest -- will then be choosing between Mitt and a bunch of other candidates who are not, at this point, looking like a bunch of giants. If the race comes down to Palin vs. Romney, Mitt will be in great shape, because Palin has a relatively low ceiling of support even within the party, and chances are she'll be running a Keystone Kops campaign more notable for its entertainment value than for its ability to accumulate delegates.
Whether progressives would rather have Romney be the nominee over someone else is a difficult question. He's probably the one with the best chance to beat Obama, but he may also be the one most likely to govern sanely, should he actually win. This is a question a lot of progressives I know are now asking themselves with regard to Palin -- should you want her to be the GOP nominee, given the small chance that she'd win, set against the likelihood that if by some turn of events she did, within a few months America would become a post-apocalyptic hellscape where survival depends on forging an alliance with the cannibal gangs to overcome the zombie horde?
In either case, there's no easy answer. But it's not something we'll be deciding anyway.
-- Paul Waldman
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