I have a confession to make: Mitt Romney is really starting to get on my nerves.
It's nothing I'm proud of. I try to be as rational as possible in my writing and analysis of politics, marshaling facts to support my claims and avoiding impugning people's motives as much as possible. But I think I'm beginning to understand how Republicans felt about Al Gore in 2000. I don't mean what they thought or believed, like the phony story that Gore claimed to have invented the internet (he didn't). And I don't mean the simple displeasure we get from having to listen to someone we disagree with talk for a long time. I mean how they felt on an emotional, visceral level, whether those feelings were justified or not.
Every presidential nominee faces a similar problem: in the primaries, you have to appeal to your base voters, tickling the tender parts of the ideological true believers, but in the general, you need to appeal to independents, necessitating a move to the center. The transition from one to the other can be awkward. In the last few days, I've heard a number of Republicans give the same answer when this question is brought up. Isn't their eventual nominee being hurt by the fact that their primaries involve a lot of things like immigrant bashing and coming out against contraception? Nah, they reply, it'll all be OK -- after all, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had a hard-fought primary in 2008, and he still won easily in the fall. I suspect we'll be hearing this many times over the next few months, so let me explain why it's completely mistaken.
Obama and Clinton did indeed have a hard-fought primary. It was vigorous, at times even a little ugly. But there's one thing it never was: A contest over who was the most ideologically extreme.
That isn't to say Democrats didn't talk amongst themselves about which candidate was the truer liberal. They did. A lot. I'll confess that I was one of the many who ended up believing, with only the most limited evidence, that Obama would display far more fealty to progressive principles than Clinton would, a belief that turned out to be misplaced. I even once wrote that I thought that on health care, Clinton would see the public option as nothing but a chip to be bargained away, while Obama would fight to keep it (ha!).
But with the exception of a couple of brief moments (like when Clinton criticized Obama for praising Ronald Reagan), that discussion didn't come from the candidates themselves. There were no Clinton ads saying, "Hillary Clinton: The true liberal." Or Obama ads saying, "Barack Obama: Liberal values, a record of liberalism." Their campaign, when it got beyond the day-to-day squabbles, was what then-TAP editor Mark Schmitt called the "theory of change primary" -- not about who was the most liberal in their hearts, but about which method of politics would produce the kind of results they agreed on.
There may be almost no difference between what Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum actually propose to do once each becomes president. But they and the other candidates have spent the last few months saying, in full view of the entire electorate, "I'm the most conservative!" "No, I'm the most conservative!" You got ads like this one, in which Santorum attacks Romney for his prior liberal positions, and ends with the tag line, "Rick Santorum: A trusted conservative." You've got this Ron Paul ad saying Santorum's a "fake conservative." You've got Mitt Romney feeling so much pressure that he has to proclaim that as governor he was "severely conservative." All that produces headlines like this one: "Romney, Santorum battle over who's more conservative."
So the nominee, most likely Romney, will have to distance himself from all that once the fall comes. And quite conveniently for Barack Obama, that will necessitate some ideological squirreliness that will reinforce exactly the critique the Obama campaign will be making of his character.
For the last few years, liberals have been pointing out that conservatives radically shifted their opinions about certain ideas once those ideas were embraced by Barack Obama. The two biggies are an individual mandate for health insurance, which was conceived by conservatives at the Heritage Foundation as a way to get (nearly) universal coverage while maintaining the private insurance system; and a cap-and-trade system for reducing harmful emissions, which was conceived as a way to use market forces instead of government regulations to achieve an environmental good. All kinds of conservatives liked those ideas, but once Obama advocated them, the ideas became not just disfavored but presented as something so vile and socialistic they could only have been coughed up by Joe Stalin's decaying corpse.
That happened a couple of years ago, but now we're in an election year, so it's only going to get worse. And watching the entire conservative universe get pulled toward opposition not just to abortion but to contraception, for goodness sake, one has to wonder what they're thinking inside that universe. They surely know that opposing contraception is very, very bad politics. And for most of them I'm sure it's not even something they agree with on the substance. But all it takes is a couple of people within the movement to stake out a position, and before you know it everybody else has no choice but to follow along. There just isn't any incentive for any Republican to say, "Hold on fellas, I think we're going a little far here."
Because for them, everything is seen through the prism of Barack Obama. If he's for it, they have to be against it, no matter what they and everybody else used to think. I was reminded of that today hearing this story from NPR, about a move in New Hampshire, driven by Republicans and the Catholic Church, to allow any organization in the state to deny contraception coverage to its employees. The revealing part is in the history...
Mitt Romney pretends to enjoy hanging out with the press (Flickr/Paul Chenoweth)
It's only February, but I have a pretty good idea about how the election is going to proceed from this point forward. Mitt Romney is going to struggle through the primaries, eventually dispatching Rick Santorum. But unlike many nominees, instead of being strengthened by the primary process, he will have been weakened by it, demonstrating his persistence, but not much else. As the economy slowly improves, President Obama's approval rating will continue to inch up, and the Obama campaign will begin its assault on Romney's character, one that will be largely successful. The Romney campaign, meanwhile, will struggle in the face of that improving economy to come up with a compelling critique of the President, trying in vain to alter opinions about the incumbent that have been formed and solidified over the past four years. Obama will lead the tracking polls pretty much throughout, culminating in a win that is fairly close, but not uncomfortably so. In this it will resemble the 1996 campaign more than, say, the 2004 campaign, when the outcome was in doubt much of the way.
Of course, there will be twists and turns along the way -- campaign gaffes, unforeseen events, maybe an international crisis. But there's a very good chance that those will be minor ups and downs in an election that will end up looking fairly predictable. And throughout this process, conservatives will shout that the liberal media is trying its darndest to make sure the Democrat wins, because that's what the liberal media does. I promise you, they'll be saying this. The closer we get to election day, the louder and more bitter the complaints will be. As is often the case, the volume of those complaints will have absolutely nothing to do with the actual content of coverage. But when they do talk about the content, look closely: they'll be arguing that coverage driven by the horse race is actually driven by bias...
I have a friend, a strong environmentalist and all-around lefty of the kind your average conservative talk show host would just love to punch in the face, who has a Lorax tattooed on his shoulder. He got it 10 or 15 years ago, and his ink of Dr. Seuss' exasperated little dude who tries in vain to protect the Truffula trees never fails to win admiration from any and all who see it.
But now Hollywood has come along, and using its impeccable logic -- Kids love Dr. Seuss; kids love movies; ergo, kids will love Dr. Seuss movies! -- has finally gotten around to making a full-length version of The Lorax. There's a mixed record on Dr. Seuss movies (Horton Hears a Who, not bad; The Cat In the Hat, a soul-sucking crime against nature), but particularly with The Lorax, a rather bleak morality tale with only a couple of characters, they'd have to cram in a whole bunch of humans and events that Dr. Seuss never dreamed of to get it to 90 action-packed minutes. And did they ever; Grist's David Roberts, upon seeing the trailer called it a "rainbow-barf monstrosity."
In any case, the fact that they've made a movie out of the enviro-rhyming book has made conservatives predictably outraged. Lou Dobbs, always ready to explore new frontiers in bloviating jackassery, sees a conspiracy linking Hollywood, Occupy Wall Street, and the Obama White House, pushing not just the environmental extremism of The Lorax, but also the socialist redistributionism of the children's classic The Borrowers (in its form as a new film called The Secret World of Arietty) because the tiny little beings steal things like sugar cubes from humans, whom Dobbs believes represent the 1 percent. Seriously.
But as David Haglund says, of courseThe Lorax is propaganda -- that's just how Dr. Seuss intended it, and you couldn't make a Lorax movie that wasn't. Should that bother us?...