No Way Out

Let’s say that Eric Fehrnstrom is right, and Mitt Romney can reboot his campaign like an Etch-a-Sketch. In the fall, he runs against President Obama as a Massachusetts moderate—to borrow from Newt Gingrich—and wins the White House on the strength of conservative anger with Obama and public discontent with the economy.

In which case, who is the “real” Romney? Is it the conservative ideologue who—despite his public heterodoxies—won the Republican nomination by attacking his opponents from the Right? Or is it the Romney who made his way to the Oval Office by emphasizing his moderate sensibilities? For Salon’s Steve Kornacki, the only conceivable Romney is the former:

As president, he’d be at the mercy of congressional Republicans (particularly on the House side) whose ranks are filled with more true believers than ever before. […]

This ideological purity is enforced by the conservative absolutists who dominate the party’s opinion-shaping class – television and radio hosts, columnists, bloggers and pundits, all ready to attach the RINO label to any Republican office-holder or candidate who doesn’t tow the line.

Romney would enter office with these conservatives watching him closely, ready to revolt at the first hint of a sellout.

It’s for this reason that I’ve long seen Mitt Romney as the most reliable choice for Republicans who want a conservative presidency. For conservative purists, the downside of an ideologue like Rick Perry or Rick Santorum is that they can cut a deal with the other side, secure in the knowledge that they have the support of a rank-and-file that identifies with their administration. By contrast, Mitt Romney will almost always face pressure and mistrust from the right-flank of the Republican Party. And because those voters and activists are key to his political success, once in office, he’ll do everything he can to satisfy their demands.

Insofar that conservatives are taking a risk with Romney, it’s if Democrats keep a majority in the Senate and win a majority in the House, or if a new issue enters the political landscape, and conservatives haven’t developed a consensus around it. In the event of the former, odds are good that President Romney would do as much as he could to work with Democrats and pass policy, in which case, conservatives will be sorely disappointed. In the case of the latter, it’s almost certain that Romney’s technocratic instincts would run counter to the immediate conservative impulse.

Regardless, the main point is that absent particular events, the odds are slim for a moderate Romney presidency. Whether this fact penetrates the Beltway consensus is, of course, up in the air.