Mitt Romney's close call at the Iowa caucuses Tuesday will doubtless contribute to speculation that he is too "moderate" to appeal to Republican primary voters. While Romney has a complicated relationship with his new party-line stances on social issues, I'd argue that his new positions and his Olympian flip flops that he had to make to get there are only part of his problem. Romney isn't too moderate for Republican voters -- at this time in our country he's simply the wrong kind of extreme.
The 2012 election will ultimately be a referendum on the kind of economic policies Americans want -- ones that work for working people or ones that are designed by and for a privileged few. The Bush-instigated recession has compounded the unprecedented disparity between the richest few Americans and the millions who are struggling just to get by. President Obama's efforts to put Americans back to work have been met at every turn by a Republican Congress unwilling to stimulate the nation's economy and stabilize the nation's finances, inexplicably eager to give a tax hike to working families but unwilling to let Bush's damaging tax cuts for the wealthy expire. All the Republican frontrunners are offering similar reprises of Bush's disastrous economic policies. But only one comes across immediately and undeniably as an extreme corporatist.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee hit Romney's extremism problem on the head when he said the candidate "looks like the guy who fired you." Most didn't get to see his face at the time, but Mitt Romney has plenty of experience firing people from a distance, sending thousands of jobs overseas while raking in fat paychecks at Bain Capital that continue today years after his retirement. No wonder he hasn't been able to shake the image of himself as a corporate fat-cat: he doesn't just want to give corporations and the wealthy major tax cuts, he openly states that he thinks "corporations are people."
And Romney's out-of-touch image and pro-corporate extremism aren't just turn-offs to progressives. A poll by The Hill this fall found that "55 percent of conservatives and 81 percent of centrists" see income inequality in America as a problem. A Bloomberg-Washington Post poll found that a majority of Republicans think the wealthiest Americans should pay more in taxes to help bring down the budget deficit. Corporate extremism at odds with the priorities of the base is the norm among the GOP presidential candidates -- but only Romney embodies it.
Unfortunately, Romney's near-miss with Santorum will help him frame himself a mainstream, electable candidate just conservative enough to make it through the Republican primary gauntlet. Santorum is the perfect foil: a right-wing ideologue so extreme he thinks states should be able to outlaw contraception, that homosexuality is akin to bestiality, that high obesity rates are an argument against food stamps, and that all married same-sex couples should have their unions annulled. But when it comes to policy, Romney's positions on social issues are nearly indistinguishable from those of his crusading opponent. Romney has endorsed radical anti-choice "personhood amendments." He rejects marriage equality and says he wouldn't support a federal-level Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He opposes the DREAM Act. He's even getting his legal policy advice from Robert Bork, a right-wing crusader so extreme the Senate wouldn't confirm him to the Supreme Court.
Romney and Santorum would each be disastrous to America on both social and economic issues. But their near-tie in Iowa exposes a fault line that will be visible through the general election. So what's the difference? While there is still a solid evangelical base that embraces the kind of social extremism offered by Santorum, American voters across the political spectrum are wary of the government-by-the-few embraced by the GOP and embodied by Romney.
Santorum is no less of an economic extremist than Romney, just as Romney is hardly less of a social extremist than Santorum. Every Republican candidate has called for trillions of dollars of tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, for ending Medicare as we know it, and for a return to George W. Bush's disastrous economic policies. But Romney -- through his biography, demeanor and tin ear -- has, with good reason, become personally associated with these policies that cater to the wealthy and privileged and ignore the middle class.
The 2012 election will come down to a very basic choice. Do we want a champion of the middle class in the White House or the champion of those who are already powerful? Do you want to hire the guy who fired you? Iowa Republicans this week started answering that question.