Mitt Romney raised eyebrows by delivering a speech on Wednesday suggesting that President Obama is an unreliable figure, devoid of principle, program, and purpose. “He wants us to re-elect him,” the presumptive GOP nominee practically sneered, “so we can find out what he will actually do.” Someone clearly advised him that an audacious attack on Obama’s character would please the partisan base, distract voters from his own opportunistic gyrations, and create space for him to draw a new, flattering, resolute portrait of himself.
But as a presdidential nominee who spent most of the primary season erasing his own political record, Romney may already have eliminated any positive rationale for his candidacy. After disowning the most important programs and positions he advocated as Massachusetts governor, what can he present as his qualifications for the presidency? Please don’t say Bain Capital, because the nation is in no mood to elevate a ruthless private equity mega-millionaire into the Oval Office. And don’t say Summer Olympics, because that doesn’t sound quite big enough for a would-be leader of the free world.
Adopting the favored cliché of conventional politics, Romney’s friends and advisors — even his wife Ann — assure us that he will now pivot toward the broader electorate, returning to positions that once marked him as an acceptably moderate Republican. When everyone learns his true views, we won’t have to worry about his pandering to the Tea Party, the religious extremists and the corporate right. But even if he can persuasively distance himself from the far right on such issues as contraception — the surprise controversy that reopened the partisan gender gap — he will not be able to retrieve the gubernatorial record he has discarded.
Romney’s obsessive erasure of his own achievements began before the last presidential cycle, while he prepared to enter the 2008 Republican primary. During those years, he notoriously shifted long-held positions on abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, illegal immigration, and other key issues in an effort to outflank John McCain on the right. The makeover went well beyond social issues. Having vowed in 2003 that he would never sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge as governor, he signed the same pledge with a flourish four years later. And having spent millions of taxpayer dollars in the pursuit of alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels as a hedge against climate change in 2003, he spun around to denounce such notions in a 2007 press release. His enthusiasm for fossil fuels — and his disdain for “green jobs” — can scarcely be matched today by Sarah “Drill Baby” Palin.
If Romney can convince voters of his newfound right-wing orthodoxy, that won’t help him explain why he should be president. Given the partisan gridlock that has confronted the inexperienced Obama, a candidate boasting of success as Republican governor of a Democratic state could arguably offer an alternative. But while Romney often talks about his role in working with legislators of the other party, he can no longer describe what they did without eroding his own party’s enthusiasm. Certainly he cannot “pivot” back to the universal health coverage that became his signature accomplishment — a bill that inspired the Obama administration’s insurance mandate and required substantial state spending (and taxes) to achieve its worthy objective. Indeed, he hasn’t been able to talk about the goal of universal coverage, which is simply unacceptable to the “let ’em die” ideologues of the Tea Party. He can’t even brag too loudly about eliminating the state’s budget deficit because that too involved increasing taxes — or hiking fees and closing loopholes for the wealthy, viewed with equal contempt in his party.
Reforming health care and balancing budgets frame the entirety of Romney’s single term as governor. The final blow to any bipartisan credibility that Romney might still retain came when he endorsed the “marvelous” Ryan budget, a plan that undermines both of those goals while symbolizing the dysfunctional divisiveness of the Republican Congressional majority.
Maybe he should start talking about the Olympics after all. It isn’t an impressive credential for the American presidency — but when the summer games begin, at least he won’t have to pretend that he never supported them.