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Mitt Romney: The Candidate You Can Push Around

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This past weekend's big political column came from syndicated columnist George Will, who called out Mitt Romney at length for his serial flip-flops and lack of authenticity in a piece titled "Mitt Romney, the pretzel candidate."

"A straddle is not a political philosophy," said Will. "[I]t is what you do when you do not have one." Mitt had committed a recent transgression for Will to chew on: Last week, Romney refused to support a union-busting law enacted by Ohio Governor John Kasich, which is facing a possible repeal via a ballot initiative. The move was followed by a next day recantation.

His campaign called his refusal principled: "Citizens of states should be able to make decisions . . . on their own." Got it? People cannot make "their own" decisions if Romney expresses an opinion. His flinch from leadership looks ludicrous after his endorsement three months ago of a right-to-work bill that the New Hampshire legislature was considering. So, the rule in New England expires across the Appalachian Mountains?

A day after refusing to oppose repeal of Kasich's measure, Romney waffled about his straddle, saying he opposed repeal "110 percent." He did not, however, endorse the anti-mandate measure, remaining semi-faithful to the trans-Appalachian codicil pertaining to principles, thereby seeming to lack the courage of his absence of convictions.

Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November, is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable; he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate. Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the Tea Party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming.

Obviously, this is pretty much trademarked conventional wisdom on Mitt Romney, the Candidate Who Changed His Mind And Might Change It Back. But Michael Gerson, today, rises to Romney's defense in a piece that might as well be titled, "On The Other Hand, Pretzels Are Delicious." To Gerson's mind, Romney "has an advantage" in the "current Presidential cycle":

The main issues of this campaign -- economic growth and budget restraint -- are in the sweet spot of his convictions. Romney speaks on these matters with ease, authority and evident sincerity. On the largest topics of the day, the charge of inauthenticity doesn't stick.

Romney also has the potential to allay the fears of many social conservatives. A position change on abortion is always damaging -- particularly a relatively recent one. But Romney has converted to a view that seems more consistent with his background. Is it really reasonable to assume that a former Mormon bishop, deep down, is a cultural liberal?

Even conservatives who buy none of these explanations may calculate that Romney is acceptable. Precisely because he has a history of ideological heresy, it would be difficult for him to abandon his current, more conservative iteration. He has committed himself on key conservative issues. Having flipped, he could not flop without risking a conservative revolt. As a result, conservatives would have considerable leverage over a Romney administration.

Gerson is essentially revising and extending an argument that David Frum made last December, in which he described Romney as having an "Olive Garden approach to the presidency." Frum, at the time, was riffing on the marketplace malleability of Darden Restaurants, who use data-driven analysis to determine what consumers in what region want to eat at their midpriced chain restaurants. If it turns out Italian food isn't everyone's bag, Darden can convert to a Longhorn steakhouse, or vice-versa. As Frum sums up: "Is that 'flip-flopping'? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?" The debate rages, I guess, but it seems pretty clear that everyone's going home stuffed with breadsticks!

But Gerson makes an excellent point about the "considerable leverage" that conservatives wield over Mitt Romney, and frankly, what went down in Ohio over the ballot initiative indicates that the hammer swings on Romney with a good deal less subtlety than Frum originally imagined. All it took for Romney to straighten up and fly right were a few hours of getting beaten up in the press about his change in position. Surely it wasn't just Gerson marveling at the way Mitt Romney was able to offer the base same-day service.

And while Romney definitely deserves being tagged as a serial flip-flopper, I'm glad to see that Gerson understands that some of Romney's flip-flops have been all but thrusted upon the former Massachusetts Governor: "In a different political environment," Gerson says, "I suspect that Romney would be proud of his Massachusetts health reform instead of struggling to minimize it." Can anyone deny that Romney has been forced into making that choice? Four years ago, conservatives looked upon "RomneyCare" with benevolence because it co-opted an important issue among Democrats and presented a Republican model for healthcare that could serve as a "model for the nation." You think Mitt Romney wanted to make those strategic revisions to his campaign book?

If you look at what's happened during the campaign, you can see the attitude of the GOP's base voters aligning in a way favorable to Romney. When Rick Perry jumped into the race, he was immediately hailed as the top not-Romney in the field, and his presumed broad appeal very quickly presented itself in the polls, where he shot to frontrunner status. But pretty soon, he was taking shots for parts of his record as governor -- most notably his support for state-mandated HPV vaccinations and the provision of educational opportunities to the children of undocumented immigrants.

Perry attempted to parry these attacks by standing behind principles -- he did the right thing, in both cases, under the circumstances. But standing by his principles brought him no end of grief. He countered by referring to his opponents as heartless. That only made matters worse: Within days, his once promising standing in the polls had all but evaporated.

So, in 2012, what's so great about having principles? Sure, Romney might, as David Plouffe suggested, have nothing but an empty space where his "core" should be, but Romney's awkward, rapid repositioning in Ohio demonstrates that you can rent that space for cheap. Your other GOP frontrunner of the moment, Herman Cain, has evinced a similar malleability. Don't like his "9-9-9 plan?"

Well, it's a "9-0-9" plan now! What is it that you want Cain to say about abortion? Fine, that's what he thinks now.

For the moment, it sure seems like the GOP base is warming up to the idea that the best candidate for president is someone who is an empty vessel into which it can pour its resentments and who it can browbeat with relative ease. Mitt Romney fits that bill.

READ THE WHOLE THING:
The conservative case for Mitt Romney [Michael Gerson @ Washington Post]

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