According to today's New York Times, the president's advisers are debating whether to characterize Mitt Romney in terms of his inconsistency on important policies (flip-flopper), his support for far-right positions that are out of touch with the moderate middle (extremist) or a combination of both. While there's no way to know for sure which depiction would work best, my sense is that progressives should emphasize Romney's extremism and portray him as the radical who he now claims to be, as someone, in other words, who would cut taxes on the rich, kill the health care bill which is already saving lives, and appoint radical judges who would overturn Roe v Wade.
To begin, the characterization rings true in that Romney would probably govern as an extremist if elected to office. It doesn't matter what's in his heart or how he governed in Massachusetts. What matters is that both wings of the Republican party -- the tax-cutters and the culture warriors -- have been taken over by extremists who support irresponsible policies. And any Republican president would have to hedge to the right to keep the extreme wing of the party appeased. George W. Bush seemed like a moderate to many people when he campaigned in 2000, but he ended up governing as an extremist. Romney would end up governing the same way. Interestingly, however, Romney's base doesn't believe that he is a true extremist, and it is unlikely that anything the administration says could change their minds. So, characterizing Romney as a far-right winger would ring true with the general public while running little risk of energizing Romeny's base.
Moreover, emphasizing Romney's extremism puts him in a double bind by forcing him to choose between running against the portion of his own rhetoric that his base doesn't believe, or campaigning against the moderate middle. If he wins the Republican nomination, Romney would likely want to adjust and soften some of his rhetoric to appeal to independents who vote in the general election. By emphasizing his extremist positions, the administration could force Romney into a difficult corner. He could accept the characterization, which would have the effect of alienating moderates and allowing the President to occupy the valuable middle. Or he could contest the characterization, which would intensify the distrust of far-right foot-soldiers who he will need to energize his get-out-the-vote operation, and who tend not to identify with him in the first place.
Finally, while Romney certainly is a flip-flopper (and the Mitt vs. Mitt ad that the DNC put together is just fantastic), accusations of inauthenticity don't automatically sink a candidate. When Bush's campaign operatives tarnished Al Gore and then John Kerry as inauthentic, this was code for unmasculine and weak, characterizations that, unfortunately, got some traction in both cases. In the current situation, however, portraying Romney as a flip-flopper would not signal weakness or a lack of masculinity, but would tap into suspicions that he is not a true conservative. But far-right Republicans already believe that Romney is not a true conservative, and if he wins the nomination, Romney himself will want to emphasize the moderate aspects of his record to appeal to the middle. So the characterization of Romney as a flip-flopper could reinforce one element of his general election strategy.
There's a long way to go in this race, and it is impossible to know who will win the Republican nomination. That said, I'm somewhat troubled by the conventional wisdom that an authentic extremist like Rick Santorum, whose views are out of touch with the moderate middle, is less electable than an instrumental extremist like Romney. The danger of a true extremist like Santorum is that, should he win the nomination, he can pretend to be a moderate during the general election campaign without deflating far-right tax-cutters and culture warriors who will understand that his moderation is fake, and who will be more than happy to give him a lot of leeway when he pretends to move to the middle.
As disappointed as some progressives may be with the president's measured approach to governing, Obama has managed to wrack up many significant achievements while putting the Republicans in a difficult position in which they will have a hard time rallying around a candidate. For that, we should be very, very thankful.