We've seen throughout the campaign that if you're willing to say really outrageous things that are accusative and attacking President Obama, that you're going to jump up in the polls," Mitt Romney said just before he won the Michigan and Arizona primaries. "I'm not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support." Well, that's a relief. It's nice to know that there's something Romney won't say or do to win the Republican nomination. His Hair-Fire Manifesto, immediately criticized by Republican Party boss Rush Limbaugh, also had the virtue of being true: while his opponents--mostly Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum--have been saying all sorts of outrageous and insidious things about the President, Romney has pretty much stood by his initial formulation: Obama is a nice guy who has been overmatched by the office. The trouble is, Romney has engaged in follicular arson on so many other issues--on immigration and foreign policy and health care and "entitlements"--that he has severely damaged his standing with the constituency that should matter most to him: the sane moderates and independents who will decide the general election.
The two most ridiculous words in politics are electability and inevitability, especially when used prospectively. Over the years, I've seen candidate after candidate crash and burn by positing, "Elect me, I'm electable," without putting any meat behind the proposition. Candidates who tout their electability are usually moderates. (Those who implicitly tout their inevitability are usually moderates with a lot of money in the bank.) They focus most of their attention, naturally, on finding ways to conciliate their party's most passionate adherents, the base. But the electable candidates who succeed--Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to name two recent examples--also offer a message that encourages moderates and independents to turn out for them, even in the primaries. Clinton's emphasis on reforming welfare and curbing crime rankled the Democratic Party base but brought a lot of disgusted moderates to the polls. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" led him to spend more time talking about poverty than any of the Democrats who ran in 2000, and it took the edge off his tax-cutting message.
Romney has done no such thing. Given a chance to run to the left of his opponents on any one of a variety of issues, he hasn't taken it. Most recently, he chose not to challenge Santorum on birth control or prenatal testing or on the notion that the President is a "snob" for suggesting that college is a good thing. Romney's silence is understandable. He has a heavier lift than Clinton or Bush the Younger had; his Republican Party oozes half-crazed extremist anger. But gaining credibility with the party's base means losing credibility with everyone else. In one of the early debates, the candidates were asked if they would sign a deficit-reduction bill that included $1 in taxes for every $10 in cuts. Romney said no, as did all the others (including Jon Huntsman). What would have happened if Romney had said, "Hey guys, 10 to 1 is a pretty good deal--that sort of compromise is a small price to pay to get this country back on track"? He might have sacrificed a few of the wingers, but he would have established himself as a politician willing to make deals to make progress, which is something 89% of the public said they wanted in a Time poll last autumn.