So, did you hear? This week, the GOP nomination pretty much became a settled issue. Barring some accident or emergency (or some freaktastic alchemical wizardry that his opponents have yet to deploy), you can pretty much pencil in Mitt Romney as your GOP nominee. Actually, you should have penciled that in a long time ago. If you have, go ahead and write over it in ink.
So now, all that matters is how soon the rest of the parties involved in this electoral process realize that part one, The Primarying, is over. President Barack Obama clearly has -- his campaign released its first anti-Romney ad, touching off what you should expect to be a very harsh and brutish campaign season. Newt Gingrich, while continuing to maintain that he'll be a presence in the GOP primary all the way to Tampa, briefly allowed reality to penetrate his skull, admitting that Romney is basically going to be the winner. And those "all the way to Tampa" plans? Well, they've gotten considerably more modest.
We wait now for Rick Santorum to decide what he's going to do. The presumption is that a religious man like Santorum likely knows what it means when big block letters appear on a wall. And he did decide, in the wake of his primary losses this week, to take a break. Special significances were attached to that decision. And then it came to light that Santorum was meeting in conference with conservative leaders in Virginia, to hatch a last-minute plan to wreck Romney. Those special significances followed him there. But in less than three weeks' time, Santorum -- should he decide to stay in the race -- will have to demonstrate that he can still win something. Those prospects are not looking good.
Besides, it says something that your best case scenario is one in which you get drubbed in New York, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. But that's what's going to happen. The only variable for Santorum is whether he gets drubbed in Pennsylvania as well, and whether Santorum really wants to come out of this election cycle having had his ass kicked in his home state ... again.
But if Romney's a shoo-in at this point, he's probably going to learn very quickly that the mantle of inevitability can be weighing. After all, he hasn't exactly managed to set the world of conservatives on fire. The money quote of the week comes from MSNBC's Joe Scarborough:
Nobody thinks Romney’s going to win. Let’s just be honest. Can we just say this for everybody at home? Let me just say this for everybody at home. The Republican establishment — I’ve yet to meet a single person in the Republican establishment that thinks Mitt Romney is going to win the general election this year. They won’t say it on TV because they’ve got to go on TV and they don’t want people writing them nasty emails. I obviously don’t care. But I have yet to meet anybody in the Republican establishment that worked for George W. Bush, that works in the Republican congress, that worked for Ronald Reagan that thinks Mitt Romney is going to win the general election.
Of course, no one but Joe Scarborough knows how good Joe Scarborough's sources are, but his salient point is an oft-repeated one: the establishment GOP is going to take to Romney like it's a forced marriage instead of a grand love affair.
But we urge caution, here. It is definitely possible to overrate the significance of these initial feelings of "meh" that the Republican elites and their base are demonstrating for Romney at the end of the primary season. There's a pretty great curative for that called the general election, and once this matter gets clarified into a Romney vs. Obama contest, you might be surprised who picks up the pom-poms for Mitt. Or not! The point is, we want to encourage you readers to be alert to all possibilities, rather than get blindsided when the March-April vintage of the conventional wisdom turns sour.
Besides, it's possible that Romney has this exactly where he wants it. You're going to hear a lot about Romney's tricky "pivot to the center," and what he stands to gain or lose. The conventional thinking, of course, is that he'll have to snap leftward, and when he does, he'll activate all the old agitation over his past moderate stances. But Romney's opponents have been warning all along that he's a squishy moderate. So much so that you'll hear plenty of reporters from now till November opining with a variation of Alex Altman, who observes: "A very conservative party is on the verge of nominating a relative moderate whom nobody is very excited about, largely because none of his rivals managed to cobble together a professional operation."
What we do know is that when he ran in two races in the extremely liberal state of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was a moderate. Then when he ran in two races to be the Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney was and is extremely conservative. There is simply no reason—none—to believe, let alone to assert as though it were an undisputed fact, that the first incarnation of Romney was the "real" one and the current incarnation of Romney is the fake one.
Every single issue position that might mark Mitt Romney as a "relative moderate" is something he has cast off, whether it's being pro-choice, or pro-gay rights, or not hating on immigrants. If you're going to say he's a relative moderate, you have to explain how the Massachusetts Romney was an expression of his true beliefs, and the national Romney is the product of cynical calculation, and how you know this to be the case.
It's actually pretty intriguing, the way Romney could be poised to turn his greatest liability -- ideological pliability -- into a strength. If conservatives observe Romney taking conservative positions, that could make Romney more endearing. If moderate voters keep hearing Romney described as a moderate, from reporters and critics, they'll could lose their fear of his extremes. And if he's nakedly cynical about the process, where's the harm? There are plenty of voters for whom an extremity of cynicism in an effort to defeat Obama is no vice.
We are, as always, prepared to be wrong. But we think that the general election is going to be closer than most people expect, less conforming to convention than most people imagine, and just as ugly as most people fear.
For more on the slow transition from the primary season to the general election, and all your news from the trail this week, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of April 6, 2012.
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