As the eponymous candy bar once remarked, “When you’re this big, they call you Mister.” It’s different with politicians, though: Ask Mitt Romney. When you’ve gotten as big as he has, they call you waffling, unprincipled and a sorry excuse for a candidate.
Many Democrats deluded themselves that Republicans, being Republicans, would choose someone unelectable. If they couldn’t swoon at the feet of Sarah Palin, they would genuflect before Michele Bachmann. For a while, the Great Blue Hope was Rick Perry, who, like the two women, had said ever so many things unpalatable to independents.
Mitt Romney? Surely Republicans would never choose so moderate a champion. Not when they could nominate someone who’d said wacky things. You know, like Ron Paul’s campaign to resuscitate the late terrorist mastermind Anwar al-Awlaki and offer him libertarian apologies.
Democrats underestimated Republicans’ determination to defeat Barack Obama. Yes, the GOP is further to the right than it’s ever been and, yes, it will choose its most moderate candidate in decades. But there’s no paradox. For most conservative Republicans, giving Mr. Obama the boot matters more than the ideological purity of the booter.
Mr. Romney is Mr. Obama’s nightmare. He’s the only Republican opponent against whom he couldn’t be confident of reclaiming the centrist defectors from his electoral coalition of 2008. Democrats would dearly love to be able to paint the former Massachusetts governor as an extremist, thus rallying their base and corralling independents. This would also further their general strategy of turning Mr. Obama’s setbacks to their advantage by casting Republicans as obstructionist. As a “can do” sort of guy – a problem solver – who’s never served in Washington, Mr. Romney’s nomination would subvert this narrative. Precisely because he can’t be taxed with extremism, Democrats have taken to making a vice of his lack of it by harping on his inconsistencies.
Noteworthy are Mr. Romney’s similarities to Mr. Obama, especially to the ascendant Mr. Obama of 2008. There were several keys to Mr. Obama’s success then, most of which no longer apply. One that probably still does, however, was what most seemed to qualify him to manage an already flagrant crisis. He succeeded in persuading businessmen, journalists, intellectuals and even many ordinary voters of his superior flexibility and pragmatism. As he himself noted, his success depended on his being many things to many voters (if not quite all things to all). Youths with nose rings supported him, but Mr. Obama, in his unflappable urbanity, was nothing like a youth with a nose ring. He actually managed to convince many voters that he was steadier as well as more flexible than John McCain. In this election, however, given his failures as a manager, the shoe may be on the other foot.
Mr. Romney stands in much the same relation to Tea Party Republicans as Mr. Obama did to his grassroots zealots. They will support him in their resolve to defeat Mr. Obama, but other voters won’t confuse him with them. His selling point isn’t ideological consistency but his consistent success at the helm of a range of public and private enterprises. (Which is far more than Mr. Obama could claim in 2008, and even further more than he can claim today.) Unlike Republican rival Herman Cain, Mr. Romney is not riding a trademark hobby horse (Mr. Cain’s 9-9-9 tax scheme). Rather, he exudes (you guessed it) superior flexibility and pragmatism.
Not that the prospective candidates are twins. On basic economics, they’re far apart, as well as in their approaches to foreign affairs. Mr. Romney is neither a sabre-rattler nor resigned, like Mr. Obama, to America’s diminished role in the world. Whereas Mr. Obama is apologetic about America’s past, Mr. Romney staunchly defends it. As a Republican candidate, he has had to adopt, however lukewarmly, some trappings of social conservatism. (He will not make priorities of these.) His rhetorical skills can’t match Mr. Obama’s, but Mr. Obama’s have been paying diminishing returns. He may seem duller than Mr. Obama, but dullness has its attractions when you’re seeking any port in a storm.
On the whole, Mr. Romney should match up well against Mr. Obama, one cool cucumber with another. While nothing is cloudier than the crystal ball of a pundit, Americans may be in for a close and exciting election.
Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.