If Barack Obama prevails this November, it will be in large part because of what has come out of Mitt Romney’s mouth in the last year.
I’m not talking about gaffes, for which the presumptive Republican nominee has a Freudian propensity. It’s as if the gaffe that ended his beloved father’s 1968 presidential campaign (George Romney said he had been subject to “brainwashing” on a trip to South Vietnam) puts Mitt Romney into “Don’t think of an elephant” mode. He’s so conscious of not making a gaffe that his subconscious insists on one every couple of weeks.
But gaffes are overrated as decisive campaign events. With the possible exception of President Gerald Ford saying during a televised debate a month before the 1976 election that Poland was not under Soviet domination (a howler that slowed an amazing comeback against Jimmy Carter), it’s hard to think of a misstatement that has determined the outcome.
Romney letting slip that he pals around with Nascar owners, or that corporations are people, too, or that his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs may cement his position as the out-of-touch poster boy of the 1 percent. But if he convinces people he can fix an ailing economy, not much else will matter. Swing voters rarely vote against someone just because he’s rich.
Between now and the election, these and other cable-ready boo-boos will become distant memories. Web ads about them may go viral, but they aren’t likely to sway anyone who hasn’t already decided against Romney.
The bigger problem is what the soon-to-be Republican nominee has said on substance. The news media doesn’t focus much on issues, which are duller than the circus but usually more lethal politically. Unlike gaffes, political positions are fair game for Obama to exploit in front of 60 million voters watching the fall debates.
Romney has flip-flopped so much that he now has little room to back away from what he said during the primaries. The “lamestream media” would crucify him for it; so would conservative base voters. Their “meh” on Mitt would quickly morph into a sense of betrayal. (The same logic explains why Romney, whatever his background, can’t possibly govern as a moderate.)
Obviously, Romney needed to prove during the primaries that he was a stout conservative, but he went overboard. He was never going to convince right-wingers he was the most conservative candidate in the race, so why harm his chances in the fall by trying? If Romney loses, historians will ask whether he really had to box himself in so tightly to win the Republican nomination.
Let’s say that instead of repeating his 2009 flat-out opposition to the successful auto bailouts, Romney had said they were structured wrong. Or instead of declaring Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan “marvelous” (a word Obama mocked in his speech attacking the plan this week), Romney had said that Ryan had many good ideas but that if he was elected, he would have his own budget blueprint. I’m not defending this kind of politically convenient fudge, but would it have destroyed his chances of being nominated?
Romney went the other way. He has so lashed himself to Ryan, an Ayn Rand libertarian, that there’s talk of Ryan going on the ticket. The Ryan-Romney plan — from slashing federally funded scientific research to forcing seniors from nursing homes because of draconian Medicaid cuts — will be wildly unpopular if Obama and his team find the resonant language to exploit it.
Even if one argues that fudging the Ryan plan was impractical (after all, Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly approved it), on two other critical issues — women’s health and immigration — Romney clearly went further than was necessary to claim the nomination. These issues happen to be of great concern to the two constituencies that account for his lagging behind Obama in the polls. If Romney can’t break 40 percent with women and Latinos, it’s hard to see how he wins.
Let’s stipulate that Romney’s history left him no room to dissent on the Blunt amendment, which would permit employers to strip their health plans of birth control or anything else they find objectionable to their religious beliefs or moral convictions. Romneycare in Massachusetts gave employers (including religious institutions) no such exemptions. Conservatives would have endlessly hassled Romney if he fell short of a full repudiation of everything he did on health care as governor.
But does his attendance at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser in 1994 and previous support of abortion rights really compel him to race to the other extreme and proclaim that he would “get rid of” Planned Parenthood? (His spokesman later clarified that he meant all federal support for Planned Parenthood.) Over the last 40 years, this organization provided the first birth control to millions of middle-class swing-vote suburban women. They haven’t forgotten.
It’s hard to believe that Romney would have lost the Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin primaries to Rick Santorum if he had refused to attack Planned Parenthood hammer and tong. By pandering unnecessarily, he worsened his chances with women in these and other battleground states in the fall.
Immigration put Romney in a similar pickle. Attacked during the 2008 campaign for hiring a lawn care agency that employed undocumented workers, Romney tried to be tougher than all the other Republican candidates on this issue. He was so worried about Rick Perry that he cold-cocked him during an early debate for allowing the innocent children of undocumented immigrants to attend the University of Texas. Even after Perry had been marginalized, Romney was still touting “self-deportation” and other anti-immigrant ideas.
Suppose instead that Romney had talked tough on border enforcement but, like Gingrich, left the door open to working out a solution for the children of immigrants. (His current position of making allowances only for those who join the military satisfies no one.) A more vague position would hardly have cost him the Republican nomination. But it would have protected him against Obama clobbering him with the Dream Act in a debate.
What Romney thought was de rigueur in the primaries may bring rigor mortis in the general. He seems to have forgotten that everything he said to win the nomination is now etch-a- sketched in stone.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
Copyright 2012 Bloomberg