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The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For April 6, 2012

Jason Linkins   |   April 6, 2012    5:40 PM ET

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."

But Paul Waldman disagrees with this:

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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What Happens If Rick Santorum And Newt Gingrich Join Forces? (Nothing.)

Jason Linkins   |   April 5, 2012    5:19 PM ET

OK, so earlier today, I noted that Rick Santorum is meeting with some group of conservatives in Virginia about how they will "Stop Romney." How will they do that? It's not clear. My suggestion is for Rick Santorum to arrange things so that he gets killed in a light saber battle with Mitt Romney, on the grounds that if Santorum is "struck down," he will go on "to become more powerful than [Romney] could possibly imagine." The scuttlebutt, however, centers on the idea that Santorum can team up with Newt Gingrich and somehow combine to defeat Romney.

Do I even need to explain just how much this won't work? SIGH. OK, here goes.

It's been the conventional wisdom for a long time that Santorum and Gingrich are each others' own worst enemies in this race, and if only one was in the running, one or the other could consolidate the conservative vote and beat Romney with it. That's some high-grade 2012 speculation in concentrated form. The problem, though, is that it's never been clear that Santorum was ever the natural second choice of Gingrich voters, or vice-versa. In fact, our own Mark Blumenthal very recently reported that mid-March polls showed that Gingrich's departure from the race was not necessarily going to redound to Santorum's benefit:

2012-03-16-Blumenthal-withoutgingrich.png

Both surveys also asked Republicans which candidate would be their second choice. Gallup reports that current Gingrich supporters divide almost evenly between Romney (40 percent) and Santorum (39 percent), with fewer favoring Paul (12 percent) or uncertain about which candidate they might support (10 percent). Thus, with the Gingrich voters reallocated based on their second choice, Gallup shows all candidates gaining support, but Romney's margin over Santorum essentially unchanged at seven points (40 to 33 percent).

The Fox News poll statement does not report the second choices of Gingrich supporters directly, but like Gallup, the Fox pollsters did recalculate Republican preferences with Gingrich voters allocated to the other candidates based on their second choices. This tabulation shows Romney's lead decreasing slightly to four points (43 percent to 39 percent), indicating that Gingrich's supporters narrowly favor Santorum over Romney on the Fox survey.

The latest from Public Policy Polling has a slightly sunnier outlook for Santorum, if by "slightly sunnier" we mean "not entirely suffused with abject despair:

So, it's a long-shot to suggest that if Gingrich and Santorum joined forces, it would translate into a sudden series of popular vote wins in the remaining primaries for Santorum.

But to be honest, we're way past worrying about the popular vote. What matters now is the delegate count, and the conventional calculation at the moment has Romney leading with 658 delegates to Santorum's 281 and Gingrich's 135. And right away, let's all get disabused of the notion that Santorum and Gingrich can combine delegates to bring Santorum. Romney has 658. Together, Santorum and Gingrich have 416. There's no mechanism that allows Gingrich to transfer his delegates, en masse, to Rick Santorum. He is free to quit the race, endorse Santorum to the skies, and stand on his head begging his delegates to swarm Santorum's column. Some, even many, could opt for that. But there's no power that can compel this outcome, and it stands to reason that Gingrich's delegates will be at least as divided as Gingrich's voters on the matter of their second choice.

Once we're past the notion that these two not-Romney camps can marshal an army of darkness from the Gingrich delegates, we're left with Santorum's view of how his delegate argument works. If you recall, Santorum's delegate math is predicated on two assumptions. First, Florida and Arizona will eventually be compelled to delegate their delegates proportionally -- an outcome that Gingrich has also sought (to no avail) and a matter the RNC shows no stomach for relitigating. Second, Santorum assumes that he will be able to wrangle the larger share of those delegates who currently remain unbound from past primary contests.

This is where Santorum has the most trouble making his case, and it's where a team-up with Newt Gingrich doesn't get you squat. Santorum's campaign has always lacked the basic infrastructure to ensure the sort of robust ground game needed to max out its delegate count at the state convention level. Heck, Santorum's campaign has always lacked the basic infrastructure to ensure that Santorum and his delegate slates get on the ballot. The only campaign that's done a worse job at this is Gingrich's. And what did the Gingrich campaign do last week? If I recall correctly, it got slashed down to the bones. (The Gingrich camp sold this move as a "shake-up," alluding to the way one might "shake-up" a baby and accidentally kill it, I'm guessing.)

So even if Santorum literally bought the entire Gingrich campaign and all of its assets with a bag of gravel, it really wouldn't amount to a hill of beans. Of course, this will in no way stop the media from freaking out entirely for a few days if the two men join forces. Eventually, however, Santorum will lose Pennsylvania, and that will be that.

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Santorum, 'Conservative Leaders' Meeting To Come Up With Secret Plan To 'Stop Romney' That Will Probably Fail Badly

  |   April 5, 2012    2:01 PM ET

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The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For March 30, 2012

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Rick Santorum Has Finally Realized That Every State's Primary System Is 'Different'

Jason Linkins   |   March 29, 2012    1:45 PM ET

Byron York has a piece up today about Rick Santorum's campaign and its "new delegate math" that really doesn't expand too much on all of the reports on the "new delegate math" that everyone reported on last week. (To review, Santorum believes he's much closer to Romney in the delegate count than is currently being reported; his case hinges on Florida and Arizona being compelled to distribute their delegates proportionally, and the Santorum campaign's ability to max out its delegate-wrangling at any number of forthcoming delegate conventions in states across the country.) What does seem to be new, however, is that the Santorum campaign appears to finally understand that the process by which each state awards delegates is, you know, pretty complicated!

"Here's one of the things that I can tell you I didn't know," Santorum told a small group of reporters at a breakfast in Washington on Monday. "Every single state is different. Every state. Every single state is different. It's different on how you get on the ballot. It's different on their structure, how they allocate delegates, whether they are bound, whether they are unbound, when they're committed, how long they committed, how they're selected. Our math is actually based on the reality of what's going on in the states."

There was probably no better precipitating event for this realization than the recently concluded Louisiana primary. Santorum won this contest in a 20-point blowout, and big blowouts translate into large delegate hauls, right? Not in Louisiana. There, only 20 of the state's 46 delegates were at stake the night of the vote, and Romney, having cleared a 25 percent popular vote threshold, will take a share of that tally. On top of that, Louisiana's allocation rules were so obscure and unique that just about every single one of us who wrote curtain-raisers on the primary, myself included, got it wrong. (See Mark Blumenthal's post on the Louisiana primary for details.)

The larger point here is that Romney's close win in Ohio has not been remotely offset by Santorum's win in Louisiana, in terms of post-vote delegate allocation. But remember that this is a product of Santorum running a campaign on little more than spit and chicken bones, before you say, "The Mark Penn 2008 Follies ride again!" Santorum, on his own, does a lot of things right, but his low-budget operation greatly impacts his campaign's ability to tend to the nuts and bolts of such matters as ballot access, delegate-wrangling, and primary process scrutinizing.

It's also why his "delegate math" argument -- which York rightly notes is not so much a "path to the nomination" argument as it is a "here's how we deny Romney the nomination" argument -- is based little more than on faint hopes. As York reports:

In a long conversation Wednesday evening, John Yob, the campaign's national and state convention director, pointed out that many high-profile primaries have been little more than beauty contests, and that delegates in many key states are actually being awarded in county, district, and state conventions, which are often dominated by conservative activists. "In that process, we are doing very well," said Yob. "The moderate candidate almost never performs better than a conservative candidate in a county, district, or state convention process."

Is Santorum actually "doing very well" in that process? It's hard to know. As York notes, "Many states are just now starting their conventions." I suppose that Santorum is in a state of "doing very well," until events demonstrate that he isn't. But in one instance I can point to, this isn't the case: Missouri -- where the Santorum campaign got worked by the Romney-Ron Paul alliance.

Over at NBC News' First Read, there's no sign that anyone's bought into Santorum's delegate math argument, and so it has declared Wisconsin to be the venue of Santorum's last stand. If that's true, that's unfortunate, because Santorum is likely to lose that state. I don't think that's true if Santorum is committed to simply denying Romney the nomination. And I'm prepared for the possibility that John Yob pulls off the greatest delegate-wrangling act in history. But if you ask me to choose between First Read's absolutism and the Santorum's gossamer math, then I'm sidling up to the former.

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Jay Leno Is Better Than The Entire Political Media At Asking Romney Health Care Questions

Jason Linkins   |   March 28, 2012    7:00 PM ET

Earlier today, I made mention of the fact that CNN's Wolf Blitzer, armed with a golden opportunity to ask Mitt Romney what he would replace Obamacare with, didn't bother to inquire.

Blitzer is not exactly alone in this. The various GOP candidates have largely stopped pretending to have alternate plans to provide affordable health care for Americans who have been historically locked out of the system, and the media has largely let the matter drop.

But it turns out that intellectual curiosity is not entirely dead, as my colleague Elise Foley has caught NBC late-night host Jay Leno asking Romney some hard questions about what a President Romney would do on Tuesday night's edition of the "Tonight Show."

LENO: So you would make the law stand for children and people with pre-existing conditions?

ROMNEY: People with pre-existing conditions -- as long as they’ve been insured before -- they’re going to continue to have insurance.

LENO: Suppose they were never insured?

ROMNEY: Well, if they're 45 years old, and they show up, and they say, 'I want insurance because I've got a heart disease,' it's like, 'Hey guys, we can’t play the game like that.'

'You’ve got to get insurance when you’re well, and if you get ill, then you’re going to be covered.'

LENO: I know guys at work in the auto industry, and they're just not covered ... They’ve just never been able to get insurance. And then they get to be 30, 35 and were never able to get insurance before. Now they have it. That seems like a good thing.

ROMNEY: We'll look at a circumstance where someone was ill and hasn't been insured so far. But people who have had the chance to be insured -- if you’re working in an auto business, for instance, the companies carry insurance; they insure all their employees -- you look at the circumstances that exist. But people who have done their best to get insured are going to be able to be covered. But you don’t want everyone saying, 'I'm going to sit back until I get sick and then go buy insurance.' That doesn’t make sense. But you have to find rules that get people in that are playing by the rules.

The key part is the last bit. It doesn't "make sense" to Romney to have "everyone saying, 'I'm going to sit back until I get sick and then go buy insurance.'" As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent pointed out, Romney has relevant experience as to how you solve this problem:

What’s particularly interesting about the above exchange is that Romney himself detailed exactly the problem that the individual mandate is designed to fix: If people wait until they get sick before getting insurance, it fouls up the system. As he puts it, ..."you've got to get insurance when you're well." Romney's recognition of the policy problem, of course, is why he passed a mandate at the state level in Massachusetts.

Sargent noted that Romney is only in this bind because of the vagaries of "GOP primary politics," which dictate that Romney's once highly touted solution to the problem of universal health care coverage is now considered to be a constitutional abomination among the elites of the Republican Party.

For the millionth time, I'll defend Romney in this regard. For all of Romney's history as a flip-flopper, on this key issue it's all of Romney's would-be Republican allies that have flopped on him. Is that fair? Of course not.

But fair or not, Romney has to decide what he would put in place of the Affordable Care Act if it goes down as a result of a Supreme Court ruling or if a bill to repeal it lands on his desk. It seems to me that Romney could own his own policy and let the current law stand -- which would effectively end the opportunity to argue health care with President Barack Obama in the general election. (It could be argued that this doesn't particularly put Romney at a disadvantage.) Or he could go back to the drawing board and come up with a whole new health care innovation that passes whatever passes for passing muster with the current base alignment of the Republican Party.

What Romney has offered thus far, as Sargent wrote, is "nothing." But even as he explicates the "nothing" that's on offer, you can see Romney using language that suggests he doesn't really believe "nothing" to be the right solution. Instinctually, he knows there's a problem and he knows how to talk about it. But talking about it draws him ever closer to embracing the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate.

Romney should be made to answer the question, one way or another. And all the press has to do is be at least as good at pursuing the inquiry as Jay Leno!

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Santorum's Home State Problems Continue To Mount

Jason Linkins   |   March 28, 2012    1:50 PM ET

By now, surely we've all learned to mistrust the large leads Rick Santorum has occasionally taken in the polls ahead of important state primaries, right? Weeks ahead of the contests in Michigan and Ohio, for instance, we watched as Santorum stepped out to double digit leads in the polls, only to see that advantage get slowly winnowed down by Mitt Romney's money machine.

Santorum's successes have thus far come from occasionally picking off states with a voter profile that's less favorable to Romney -- the latest being Louisiana. So a good way of looking at this is that Santorum keeps winning his "home" games, and keeps getting pipped at the post in his "away" games, and it's those "home" wins that are keeping him alive.

Bad news, then, for Santorum. According to Tom Fontane of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, this might be about to change, as Wednesday's Franklin And Marshall poll has the former Pennsylvania senator in a virtual tie with his chief rival in his home state of Pennsylvania:

The poll of 505 registered Republican voters, conducted March 20-25 in conjunction with the Tribune-Review and other media outlets, shows Santorum clinging to a small lead over Romney, 30 percent to 28 percent, within the poll's 4.2 percent margin of error.

That's a big change from February, when Santorum, once a U.S. senator from Penn Hills, held a commanding 15-percentage-point lead over Romney in the poll.

To say that Santorum must win Pennsylvania in April is something of an understatement. He obviously has to hold serve, as Romney and Newt Gingrich have done, in his home state. But more importantly, the Pennsylvania primary is being held the same day as contests in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware -- and Romney is expected to win them all. As the tide seems to be against him in next week's contests in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, not taking Pennsylvania would mean Santorum would go the entire month of April without a win. He needs some sort of path to get him to the (slightly) more favorable contests of May in one piece.

Of course, this is but one poll result. But Santorum's home-state problems do not end there. As The Morning Call reported a week ago, Santorum's trouble with getting his slates of delegates in order have followed him home, thus endangering his chances at winning a large share of delegates a month before the primary happens.

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, one of Santorum's staunchest Pennsylvania supporters, said the campaign did make efforts to reach out to potential delegates to get them to commit to Santorum.

"The problem is, when you're running a low-budget campaign, you have to focus on the states in front of you, not 20 states in front of you," Corman said.

But it's particularly embarrassing for Santorum that in Pennsylvania, a state he represented in Congress for 16 years, he failed to utilize his connections to flush the ballots with old friends and supporters.

Santorum's Pennsylvania state director, Brian Nutt, is basically stuck hoping that the delegates who get selected will act honorably, telling the The Morning Call that "he hopes delegates will respect the wishes of the popular vote."

Well, if Santorum can't win the popular vote, those delegates are off the hook.

READ THE WHOLE THING:
Santorum slips in Pennsylvania, survey finds [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review]
Miscues costing Rick Santorum delegates [The Morning Call]

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Americans Elect Having Trouble Finding Americans Who Want To Elect

  |   March 27, 2012    4:39 PM ET

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Newt Gingrich Back To Selling Branded Merchandise As Indebted Campaign Stumbles On

Jason Linkins   |   March 27, 2012   11:15 AM ET

Newt Gingrich's campaign, now deeply in debt and forced to resort to what amounts to Internet trolling as a way of maintaining anyone's interest, is basically circling the drain. After his press secretary, R.C. Hammond, expressed a desire to "push" the "traveling press corp. [sic]" into the ocean, those few remaining print reporters who had been embedded with Gingrich travels took their leave. Even before that happened, Walter Shapiro beat everyone else to the punch and penned the essential Gingrich political obituary.

So while Gingrich may yet expend an effort to bollix the Republican National Convention, the truth is that his campaign is closer than ever to ending. And on his way out, Gingrich is returning to what he does best -- mine his likeness for merchandise. As Sarah Huisenga of the National Journal reports:

In a sign that his campaign is in need of fresh funds, Newt Gingrich on Monday began charging $50 to have a photograph taken with him following a campaign speech to Republican groups here in the northernmost part of the state.

[...]

It was the first time that the former House speaker has charged those attending one of his public speaking events to pose for a photograph with him. Lately, a member of his campaign staff has been snapping photos of any interested attendee and later posting them online at the campaign’s website, Newt.org.

Yes, apparently the Gingrich campaign is like a log flume at Six Flags, and once you've joined him, dripping with moisture, at the bottom of the ride, you can buy a picture of yourself experiencing the magic. All you need to do is go to his website and enter your credit card information. Of course, let's all keep in mind that the Gingrich campaign has begun paying off the loudest and angriest of its creditors, so this is probably not the best time to be handing Newt your credit card information.

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The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For March 23, 2012

  |   March 23, 2012    4:37 PM ET

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Mitt Romney's Overt Cynicism May Not End Up Being All That Costly

Jason Linkins   |   March 22, 2012    4:16 PM ET

If a liberal critic of Mitt Romney were to pick a child's toy to symbolize his oft-criticized tendency to erase old principles in favor of more politically expedient ones, said critic could obviously do a lot worse than pick the Etch a Sketch. And on a long enough timeline, the comparison might have been seized upon and made by any number of liberal critics. But what caught the world on fire yesterday was that the Etch a Sketch comparison was made by Romney's trusted aide-de-camp, Eric Fehrnstrom. And he intended it neither as compliment or criticism of the former Massachusetts governor -- Fehrnstrom was merely speaking to the way tactics change from a primary election to the general election: the famous "pivot to the center."

Naturally, the Etch a Sketch imagery was probably an overstatement, dragged out of Fehrnstrom's brain-pan in the heat of an on-air interview. And everyone -- from the DNC to Romney's primary opponents -- jumped on it, precisely because it was a seemingly inexplicable thing to say. The imagery resonated poorly against Romney's well-worn reputation as a flip-flopper. And the gaffe came from someone from Romney's inner circle. So, it was treated by some as accidentally revelatory and others as a key mistake, with which Romney's opposition could make hay.

But was it really all that costly? Jonathan Chait, for one, is convinced that it is. He cites two errors here, the first being that the Romney campaign, in suggesting that once Romney moves to a general election the repositioning will be as simple as wiping the slate clean and starting over, is "giving away the game too early." "It's okay to do that after you've sewn up the nomination," Chait writes, "but not while conservatives can still make your life difficult."

I'd say it's an open question as to how difficult former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) can make it for Romney. But both of those guys are waving Etch a Sketches around on the stump now, so I suspect we'll find out the answer pretty soon. The second problem Chait cites is actually more interesting:

Second, Romney's campaign suffers from a general problem of failing to hide its cynicism. The campaign's grasp of the underlying dynamics is totally sound. It sees President Obama's political vulnerability as stemming entirely from the 2007-2008 economic disaster, and it views conservative ideology as ballast upon Romney. If Romney can avoid positioning himself too far from the center, and the economy fails to recover swiftly enough, he should win. Presto!

Romney's tendency to lay his cynicism bare is something that we sort of keep cycling back to as a curiosity in this campaign. It's probably best exemplified by these eleven words: "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals." But it shows up everywhere. You see it when he flaunts his wealth, against what one would imagine to be good advice. You see it when he decides to move a small gathering of supporters to a massive stadium, where it's all but certain the camera will capture the empty, cavernous space.

And if you recall, it shows up in his campaign's overall attitude to relentlessly lie about things. When the Romney campaign was called upon to defend its decision to release a deceptive ad -- which implied that a statement made by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and cited by then-candidate Obama on the stump in 2008 ("If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.") was actually made by Obama in the context of the 2012 race -- the campaign breezily blew off the criticism by -- once again -- laying bare their cynicism:

"First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business.... Ads are agitprop.... Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It's ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context.... All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art."

It's sort of breathtaking to see the Romney camp repeatedly emphasizing the artifice of their campaign in this manner. Students of Bertolt Brecht understand that the risk in creating this distancing effect is that you invite critical observation. There are some conservatives that seem to have assessed the risk in this manner. Yuval Levin opined:

I would have thought that no political professional -- indeed, no adult who has ever been around conservative politics or thought about it much -- would ever say something so patently foolish, which so thoroughly confirms every worry that every conservative has about the candidate for whom he works.

And Bill McGurn said that Fehrnstrom needed to be fired, post-haste:

Mr. Romney's problem is not his policies or programs; his problem is his credibility: many people just don't believe he really believes what he is telling us. Firing Mr. Fehrnstrom would be a welcome signal that Mr. Romney is offended by any suggestion, no matter how much it might be later explained away, that he does not really believe what he says -- and is ready, willing, and able to erase it away when he thinks he needs to. The worst part is that Mr. Fehrnstrom does not appear to have chosen unfortunate words that distort what he ways trying to say. To the contrary, his problem is that he appears to have inadvertently expressed what he, and by extension the Romney campaign, really does think.

This is a tough decision for any candidate. We'll learn something by Mr. Romney's reaction.

But, as Kevin Drum noted, such criticism was pretty rare on the right:

Here's the interesting thing about this comment. It's provoked loads of mockery from liberals. It's provoked a bunch of attacks from the other candidates. But among the conservative commentariat, it's mostly just been sighs. I haven't seen much outrage along the lines of "This just goes to show what a fake Romney is." It's mostly been disbelief that Fehrnstrom could say something so dumb; wan defenses that he wasn't really saying anything we didn't know already; and explanations that obviously Fehrnstrom was talking about campaign mechanics, not issues.

Here's what I think: this stuff doesn't really do Romney any harm while it's March, and his opposition, in practical terms, would have to pull of something miraculous to deny him the nomination. He's all but coasting into the general election, so why should Fehrnstrom worry? In fact, if Fehrnstrom is even a tiny bit smart, he knows all of the avenues of criticism that will be pursued against Romney this summer -- he's wealthy to the point of exclusion, his principles are malleable, his positions change with the wind, he'll badly lie if it helps him win. Any chance to lay these out for criticism today is a chance to inoculate Romney tomorrow.

There are two competing schools of thought on the long primary season. One holds that all the contention damages the eventual nominee, the other contends that it makes the eventual nominee stronger. I imagine that the Romney camp holds to the latter view. And they have precedent, in the form of the lengthy primary that went down in 2008 between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton went hard at Obama's main vulnerabilities, pulling out all the stops in an effort to curb his momentum. But Obama survived. And when McCain got a chance to wield the same daggers, he found them worn and blunted and mostly useless. We'd adjudicated most of those matters in the media.

It's since became an article of faith on the right that Obama wasn't sufficiently "vetted" and that McCain lost because he was unwilling to go dirty, but McCain really didn't have a choice -- those critiques lacked novelty and utility by the time the summer swung into fall. (McCain's best gambit at the time was the one he took -- depicting Obama as a "celebrity" figure that contrasted poorly with McCain's own war-hero sacrifices. Unfortunately, the economy picked a bad time to keel over.) I read most of the complaints about Obama's inadequate vetting as a larger regret that it was Clinton that handled that vetting, and not a conservative, who could have gone at it with more venom.

The "Etch a Sketch" flap, as far as Romney is concerned, is much the same. Saying that Romney will say anything to win an election, and is a sell-out betrayer of conservative principles waiting to happen, carries a sting -- it goes right to the heart of conservative unease with Romney. Gingrich and Santorum really have no other choice than to pursue it with relish. But pursue it though they may, they will not, in all likelihood, win. It's a different story entirely if Obama tries to use it. It surely won't cause the spirits of conservative voters to flag -- when Obama tells them that Romney will say anything it takes to win, their reply will be, "Yeah, here's hoping."

And by the time we get to the general election, the media will be bored with most of this stuff. You're never going to have a better chance to hit Romney with an Etch a Sketch than you do right now. And as for any coming deceptions in campaign ads, I'd expect those complaints to have diminishing returns as well. After all, the Romney campaign has been so bracingly honest about its intention to deceive! It's something everybody does! The campaign expects it to be done to them! So dishonesty is just a interesting feature in the political landscape. A neat tactic. An interesting point of view. And it could prove to be somewhat harder to prosecute Romney for failing to provide the rose garden he said he wasn't promising.

In the wake of Fehrnstrom's remarks, the Romney campaign has offered its version of a walkback, thus fulfilling the requirement that the campaign show concern over this gaffe. But they aren't sweating it. This is a great time to up and embrace your cynical side -- when those who have the greatest reason to pillory you for it today can't stop you. By tomorrow, it will be yesterday's news.

As a side note, I'll point out that the Etch a Sketch gaffe has come at the same time as what might have otherwise been a much more glaring political error -- Romney's curious decision to align himself with the Bush-era bailouts. Chait noticed this too, and I've seen some chatter on the matter in today's cable news clatter. But do you imagine that discussion of this more constructive point will outpace the coverage of the Etch a Sketch flap? You shouldn't. In the political newscycle, the pseudo-event always wins.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

It Is Apparently Not Too Early To Start Speculating On The 2016 Presidential Race

Jason Linkins   |   March 22, 2012   12:54 PM ET

Is it too soon to start thinking ahead and madly speculating on how the horse race for the White House might look in 2016? Heavens, no! Like most of America, I already miss that period of time when a large slate of would-be candidates, including many who are manifestly unfit to lead the executive branch, gather together on a weekly basis for debates in which they are asked the same questions over and over again, until the entire nation weeps.

The way I see it, come 2016, there will either be a bunch of Democrats running for president about whom I'll have to care or I'll be six feet under the ground. So I applaud all of this future-casting, if only for the chance to aim my foot weakly at the ass of mortality.

So let's enter the 2016 Speculatron, shall we? Glenn Thrush announces today that one thing for which we should gird ourselves is the Full Unleashing of the Biden, who -- despite the fact that he'll be 73 in 2016 -- is clearly still alive with pluck and vim and an "old fire" that "crackles" and an enthusiasm that leads to hyperbole. Think Biden isn't serious about using what I'm guessing he assumes to be a soon-to-be-successfully achieved second term as a springboard for a run at the top job? Think again, because as Thrush reports, the vice president is getting his staff on:

Biden has gone on a recent staffing spree -- culminating with the hire of Clinton-era operative Steve Ricchetti -- that has many Democrats, and even some on Obama's own team, wondering if the preternaturally spry and congenitally upbeat vice president just might confound conventional wisdom.

Former Sen. Ted Kaufman, a Biden friend, staffer and adviser since the early 1970s, said it's "premature" to say Biden is laying the groundwork for a 2016 run but has no doubt that his golf-addicted buddy is physically capable of it.

"What I've been saying, and what I think he believes also, is that after this election is over, he should seriously think about 2016," said Kaufman, who is part of an informal kitchen cabinet that includes Mike Donilon, whom Ricchetti is replacing, and former chief of staff Ron Klain, who's been guiding Biden's moves despite a day job advising ex-AOL impresario Steve Case.

Thrush reports that the Obama team are "are amused rather than threatened" by Biden's subtle shows of ambition, but at least one person quoted in the story -- former Hillary Clinton aide Phil Singer -- makes the rather obvious point that Biden "should impose a gag order on any 2016 speculation." Too late, though, because the story to which Singer lent his quote is all about Joe Biden having some intriguing new guys doing some intriguing stuff for him, and his good buddy saying, "Ahhh, pay no attention to that, but on the other hand, now that you mention it, he is like a machine, physiologically speaking." Upon such thin foundations are mighty castles of speculation built.

But we needn't limit our focus to Biden, who draws such speculation primarily because he's Obama's running mate and our tendency is to respect the "next in line" concept. There's all sorts of people worth speculating about, and over at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza uses the NCAA Tournament as the peg for a huge game of thrones that involves both Democrats and Republicans in 2016 electioneering. (Cillizza takes great pains to point out that he is not predicting an Obama reelection, it's just more fun to think about both parties battling it out for bracket supremacy.)

Cillizza has, however, weighed in on Biden's fate by not including him on the Democratic side of the bracket, instead according New York Governor Andrew Cuomo the "number one seed." (Marco Rubio is his counterpart on the GOP side of the bracket.) He also underrates Hillary Clinton considerably, giving her the number seven seed. WaPo readers get to vote their preferences, and the winners advance, and there have already been some exciting upsets (Clinton prevailing over Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand beating Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick). Today, readers will be able to start voting on their "Final Four," and it all culminates with an official GOP vs. Democrat matchup being decided on April 2.

The winner of Cillizza's bracket game will receive four years of being asked several thousand times about his or her presidential ambitions every single time they sit for an interview with David Gregory. (This is also what all the losers will win.)

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

FreedomWorks Drops Opposition To Mitt Romney After Months Of Never Really Mounting It In The First Place

  |   March 21, 2012    1:22 PM ET

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