Mitt Romney’s presidential run could turn out to be a test case to resolve the long-running debate inside the Republican Party as to whether the GOP presidential nominee should run as a conservative or more of a centrist.
How often have we heard both Democratic and Republican political “experts” reciting the conventional wisdom that during primary contests, candidates of both parties must play to their respective base voters and then shift toward the center during the general election campaign? Does anyone even challenge this edict?
The first problem with this is that it implicitly suggests that all presidential candidates are first and foremost politicians who will cater their policy agenda to whatever extent necessary to win their party’s nomination and the general election. Perhaps I’m somewhat Pollyannaish, but I reject the cynical view that all politicians are, in the end, political prostitutes.
I am not saying that candidates shouldn’t do their best to package their messages in the most palatable and attractive form to voters; that goes without saying. But what about their substantive message — what they really stand for?
Well, that depends on what they stand for.
Exit polling consistently shows that nearly twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservative than as liberal. Even without that data, we know that Democrats must be convinced this is true, because most of them run as moderates in national elections.
Even President Obama, who is anything but a moderate, attempts to package his radicalism in conservative language. He doesn’t, for example, admit his contempt for the free market; he goes out of his way to redefine capitalism to encompass his socialistic leanings and his fondness for government and business partnerships. And, to shift attention from the unpopularity (and failure) of his ideas, he demonizes people and groups to make it a contest between good and evil (as he defines those) rather than between competing ideas.
Ronald Reagan decisively won his two presidential elections by being himself — a conservative — not by pretending to be something he was not. Yes, that was three decades ago, but Republican presidential candidates can still successfully run as mainstream conservatives; they can better afford to be honest about who they are than can Democrats because of Americans’ general conservatism.
This is not to say there aren’t problems with this approach. Most candidates today happen to be veteran politicians who have been constantly bombarded with conventional political wisdom, which just so happens to be conventional liberal wisdom. That conventional wisdom dictates that the American people abhor fighting between the parties, prefer bipartisanship and glorify compromise and diluted centrism.
Further, Republican politicians have been so conditioned by form-over-substance political strategists to believe they must present themselves as compromising moderates that it’s hard for them to believe otherwise.
To the contrary, Republican candidates dare not take their conservative base for granted. Energizing the base toward voter intensity and turnout is what is most important. They don’t need to be wild-eyed radicals to do this; then again, mainstream conservatism is not radical or extreme — another myth born of the liberal conventional wisdom.
I believe that people care more about what is good for the nation than whether politicians get along well enough to share cocktails at night after beating one another up all day. They care more about the sausage than they do the chaos and stench of the sausage factory.
This brings me to Mitt Romney. Among the many reasons I supported Rick Santorum is that I am confident he is more conservative and that he could be counted on to remain true to his conservative convictions despite pressure to moderate his positions. Obama has gotten us into such a mess that we can’t afford much moderation if we are to turn this country around sufficiently to avert national bankruptcy, let alone a unilateral relinquishment of our status as the world’s lone superpower.
I pray that Romney is as conservative as his strong supporters insist he is. And if so, I further pray that he will not be afraid to market himself as a conservative in the general election campaign.
Certain preliminary signs are troubling in that regard. Like candidate George W. Bush in the 2000 election, Romney already appears to be striving to prove that he’s not a detached, uncompassionate rich elitist by further whittling away the tax deductions of the wealthy. He also seems to be gravitating toward adopting the liberal template of balkanizing, identity politics — appealing to people as disparate, competing groups rather than as individuals who should be united as Americans.
To enhance his chances of winning, Romney must vigorously avoid “pale pastels,” enthusiastically and conspicuously embrace mainstream conservatism and draw, in “bold colors,” as sharp a contrast as he’s capable of drawing between his blueprint for America and President Obama’s disastrous record. Anything less would be a gift to Obama.