Has Mitt Romney painted himself into a corner? More and more, that's the question I find myself asking. During the primary season, Romney was forced to tack farther and father to the right, to convince the Republican primary voters that he was conservative enough for them to vote for (without worrying about his moderate Massachusetts beginnings). Everyone, including Romney's own top campaign advisors, thought that once the primaries were over, they'd just give the Romney "Etch A Sketch" a good upside-down shake, and the slate would be wiped clean for him to tack back to the center for the general election. But is he actually going to be able to do so?
The Republican primaries, for all intents and purposes, are over. Mitt won. But since this has become general knowledge, I certainly haven't noticed Mitt tacking anywhere but far to the right. Perhaps he took a "centrist" position in there somewhere, and I just missed it. Or perhaps, as I started with, he is just now realizing the corner he's painted himself into.
Romney (and the Romney campaign team) know that he's already weak on the issue of "flip-flopping," and ever since their own admission, voters on the right are watching him closely to see if that "Etch A Sketch" remark is going to become reality. Mitt's hold on the conservatives is tenuous at best, and any hint of flip-flopitude is going to make them howl.
Or maybe not. The hard right is certainly united in its desire to defeat Obama, and in being extremely fired up to do so. They may be forgiving (a little wink and a nudge) and say to themselves, "Romney's just got to say that to get elected; we know he'll really do what we want when he gets into office." The "electability argument" can be quite strong, as when Democrats nodded knowingly at John Kerry trying to boost his military credentials (not normally a big Democratic selling point). It's that oh-so-clever tactic by "one of our own" to hoodwink all those moderates in order to get elected, and then do what the party wants once in office (to put it in more cynical terms).
Romney may get some slack from his party's base. They may allow him to stray on a few issues to court the moderate vote, while still uttering enough "dog whistles" (coded language that lets those in the know understand what he really means) to calm their fears that Romney really has moved to the center. The hardliners in the party may have to allow Romney this latitude. After all, as the conventionally wise argument goes, who else are they going to vote for? Obama? I don't think so.
But then again, we are talking about Tea Partiers, whose one unifying characteristic is their absolute refusal to give any sort of slack on just about any of their key issues. They may continue to demand, right up to the election, absolute and unwavering support of what they believe in -- which is the wet paint on the floor in front of Romney right now (to return to our original metaphor).
Mitt Romney, so far, has shown precious little backbone for taking on his party's fringe in any way. Just today, the news broke of a person at a question-and-answer session saying Obama should be "tried for treason," and Mitt didn't even blink (much less counter the suggestion). Romney knows what a firestorm he's going to cause if he ever smacks down a fringe voice. The rightwingosphere has always shown its power to lash out at any hint of apostasy in any of their politicians, and such can certainly be expected if Romney ever does stray in any way.
Mitt Romney passed up an opportunity today to create what has entered the political lexicon as a "Sister Souljah moment." Bill Clinton, back in 1992, rejected comments that were clearly over the line from hip-hop singer Sister Souljah, to show that he could stand up to the extremists in his own party. Ever since, politicians have routinely taken advantage of such moments to make similar statements. In the last election, John McCain strongly contradicted a woman (in another Q-and-A session) who stated that Barack Obama was an Arab, for instance.
Barack Obama, of course, had not just a "moment" but indeed an entire "Sister Souljah month," when he decided that changing churches and pastors would be a good idea for his election campaign. It's hard to even remember, but the media was making an enormous deal over whether Obama was "too black," "not black enough," or, perhaps, in Goldilocksian fashion, "just black enough." Yes, this actually was a big media argument at the time, embarrassingly enough.
The question now for Mitt Romney is whether he's going to take one of these chances and have his own "Sister Souljah moment." He'll have plenty of opportunities, pretty much as many as he'll have town hall meetings. All he has to do is instruct the folks who vet the questions to allow a real humdinger through that Mitt can easily squash.
There's a bigger question than just smacking down the fringe, though. If the Obama campaign people are smart, they would do well to pick up on this theme, too. Barack Obama has earned a certain amount of political scars during his time in office -- and not scars from the opposition. Obama can, very easily at this point, cut an ad in which he says:
I took on my own party over Issue X, and I forged a compromise in order to move this country forward. I took a lot of heat for doing so from Democrats, because I believed the compromise was better than doing nothing. When has Mitt Romney gone against his party? When has he ever taken on Republican orthodoxy? I don't think the man is capable of standing firmly against the more extreme voices on the right. I think he'll do whatever they tell him to if he gets into office. I can name several times in the past few years when I've done what I thought was right even though many in my own party didn't agree. Romney cannot. That's the choice you face. I'm Barack Obama, and I approved this message.
Mitt Romney has already painted himself into the farthest-right corner in the room. He is now trapped there, desperately hoping the "paint" will "dry" in time for him to tack back to the center. He is, quite obviously, terrified of the Tea Party. He's never going to say an unkind word about them, in fear of them all staying home in November. This is a weakness, right up until Romney engineers some sort of "Sister Souljah moment." The Obama people should exploit this weakness, and this conundrum, because this is an issue about which independent voters care deeply. Those same voters may decide this election.
This is a win-win for the Obama team. Taunt Romney about his inability to stand up to his party's extremists. If Romney is forced into doing so, then just sit back and watch as the Tea Partiers eviscerate him on their own. If necessary, be helpful by pointing out that Mitt Romney just flip-flopped on another issue. The name of the corner Romney now finds himself in, properly called, is "damned if you do, damned if you don't."
(Note: I almost didn't write this article, because before I started writing it, I saw a very similar commentary on The Huffington Post by Robert Creamer. He focuses more on what would happen if Romney were actually elected, and he makes a much stronger case for how Romney would be led around "by a ring in his nose" in the long term. But while I did decide the two articles could coexist (instead of just giving up and writing on another subject) without being too repetitive, I did want to point out the similarity and give Creamer credit for his fine commentary, as well.)
Chris Weigant blogs at: