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Why Romney can’t move to the center

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After five months of voting, it appears we finally have ourselves a Republican nominee. While Mitt Romney has not officially won the nomination, at this point it is only a formality.

So what is next for him? During a hard-fought primary, candidates often take policy positions outside the mainstream to appeal to their party’s base. Those positions, however, can alienate the independent voters needed to win a general election. Traditionally, the period after the nomination has effectively been sewn up, but before the general election begins in earnest, is usually spent moving back toward the center of the political spectrum.

Romney is no exception to this rule, and in fact there are already signs that his campaign is attempting a shift. Responding to a question about whether Romney had been forced to tack too far to the right and about whether this would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election, his advisor Eric Fehrnstrom said, “I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign, everything changes. It is almost like an Etch A Sketch, you can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

That is usually how it works, but this time may be more difficult. In fact, Romney faces four unique challenges to his efforts to move to the center.

First, he is not generally trusted by the Republican base, due in part to the moderate positions he has taken as a candidate running in Massachusetts (on abortion, civil unions, gun control, climate change… the list goes on) and in part to who he is: a wealthy northeastern Mormon.  As a consequence of his moderate policy history and his lack of a personal connection to the base, most GOP voters are not likely to think he is “one of them” and, therefore, Romney runs a greater risk than other Republican candidates in the past of losing his base if he tries to shave off some of the sharp edges of his primary campaign.

Second, in this election year GOP primary-goers demanded a far more rigidly conservative agenda than in previous election cycles, forcing Romney further to the right than past nominees. In 2008, Republican voters nominated Senator John McCain who supported cap-and-trade and providing illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship. Romney may have past heresies, but he has since recanted or denied them all and, unlike GOP candidates in years past, his platform is 100% consistent with the far right wing of his party.

Third, Romney has actually attached numbers to his proposals (this point should not be overstated – given how aggressive his agenda is, he is exceedingly vague.) Policy positions that consist largely of rhetoric are relatively easy to walk back from.  It is significantly harder to do so after providing specific figures. 

For example, we know he wants to cut domestic discretionary spending (outside of health and social security spending, which he has other plans for) by roughly 25% by the end of his first term. This portion of the budget is the heart of government, funding public investments in infrastructure, education, job training, and R&D; consumer, environmental, and labor protections; and basic government operations. Although Romney has provided little detail on exactly what in that category he would like to cut, nonetheless he has specified the size of the cut.

Another position that will likely cause Romney problems with moderate voters is his proposal to cut Medicaid by nearly a third. Medicaid provides health coverage to poor and disadvantaged populations, with the blind and disabled and low income children and seniors accounting for 85% of its cost.  This is not a popular pitch among independents, especially when contrasted with Romney’s plan for large tax cuts for the wealthy.  But the fact that he has already addressed the amount of his proposed spending reduction means that Romney can not plausibly claim that it will not seriously harm these disadvantaged populations, nor can he retract or scale back the plan without appearing as  indecisive- something for which he already has a notorious reputation.

And fourth, there is the simple matter of Paul Ryan’s budget. The Ryan budget is not just a plan that fiscal conservatives have rallied behind, it has become the standard against which other plans are judged. Currently, Romney’s budget is very similar to Ryan’s. If he decided to scale back a portion, he would not just be retracting his own words; he would be abandoning what the base considers the definition of fiscal conservatism.

Generally, a presidential candidate may retract or scale back a position and get some criticism from the base for a time, but he would soon be forgiven. Eventually tribalism takes over and the candidate’s supporters do not even remember what the previous position even was. But Ryan’s budget is not going anywhere, so if Romney opens up some daylight between his budget and Ryan’s, that daylight will last through the election. Ryan’s budget will always be there to remind the base of Romney’s insufficient devotion to and betrayal of their fiscal priorities.

Even if Romney does reverse course and create a distance between himself and Ryan, it might not matter: the Obama campaign has made it clear that it will run against the Ryan budget as Romney’s plan regardless. It is a fair critique – after all, Romney himself has stated that he would sign the Ryan budget were he president.  And it is one more reason why Romney is pretty much stuck with the policy positions he has laid out during the primary.

It did not use to be this way. Republican politicians would often rail against government spending in the primary, only to downplay their anti-government zeal during the general election in favor of a kinder and gentler image. But the anti-deficit hysteria that has gripped our political culture over the past few years has forced politicians, for better or worse, to lay out comprehensive budget plans.  It started with the release of the Bowles-Simpson, Dominici-Rivlin, and Economic Policy Institute/Demos budget plans in the fall of 2010, followed by the Ryan and Obama plans, then the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Republican Study Committee plans, and finally a handful of think tanks’ budget proposals.

Within six months, at least ten comprehensive budget plans came out,  meaning that a candidate could no longer get by without putting some numbers to his or her soaring rhetoric. This development has meant more transparency and honesty in campaigns, which is definitely a good thing. But it has also pinned candidates down, limiting their ability to shift to accommodate their political imperatives. Perhaps that is a good thing as well, but it is a development that right now is undoubtedly working against Romney’s need to move to the center. And that means one thing: if elections are about competing visions, this election is going to be one dramatic contrast.