Mitt Moving to the Middle?

By R.B. Scott

Note: This piece was originally published by WBUR Cognoscenti

Boston, MA - Peggy Noonan’s summary of the Democratic confab in Charlotte last week was caustic and blunt: “stale and empty,” she wrote in her Wall Street Journal column. President Obama is “out of juice.” Then the former principal speech writer for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush aimed warning salvos at the doppelganger leaders of her own party.

The baby boomers have been supporting their grown children and their aged parents. They are stressed, stretched and largely uncomplaining, because they know that as boomers—shallow, selfish—they’re the only generation not allowed to complain…but they are spiritually and financially holding the country together, and they are coming to terms with the fact that it’s going to be that way for a good long time. They’re going to take a keen interest in where Medicaid goes. Romney-Ryan take note: this will arrive as an issue.”

On cue, a day later, Mitt Romney told NBC’s “Meet the Press” host David Gregory that he would not blow up “Obamacare” on Day One as he had once fervently pledged. Instead, with help from Democrats, he will refine it. Moreover, he blamed Republicans and Democrats alike for last spring’s budgetary crisis, the misbegotten attempt to link tax cuts to matching mandatory reductions in military spending.

Mitt Romney did what he had to do to get the nomination. Now, he will do what he needs to do to win the presidency.

Without much preamble he quietly hinted at a kinder, gentler Mitt Romney. “I am as conservative as the Constitution is,” he said, taking a giant step away from the “severely conservative” self-description he laid on the Conservative Political Action Committee just six months ago. He might just as well have said, “I am as liberal as the Constitution.”

What he means is that the U.S. Constitution, not partisan manifestos and flatulent campaign pledges, will be his bible should he be elected president. What a novel concept!

Just days into the real general election season and already Romney was sliding toward the safety of the middle, where he belongs, with the likes of his father, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford and George Herbert Walker Bush. On cue, liberals and conservatives, pundits and bloggers, each for their own particular reasons, sputtered “liar, liar, pants on fire.”

Was anyone buying their howls? “Not many” seems to be the preliminary and appropriate response. Recent polls still project a photo finish in November, which they’ve been forecasting since July 2009.

Next question: Why didn’t the pundits see Mitt’s move to the middle coming? Romney has a storied history of skillfully reinventing himself – and getting away with it whenever necessary. Like the good management consultant he is, Romney sizes up the challenge, runs the numbers and reacts accordingly. He doesn’t fret over what was or wasn’t. He zeros in on what needs to be done to win and keep the business growing.

What’s next? Count on him to shamelessly carve out plenty of wiggle room on hot-button issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and gay rights, military spending and job creation. Management consultants like wiggle room just as much as politicians do.

Will his latest flip cost him many conservative votes? Probably not. Mitt appeased them with Paul Ryan, even if Ryan’s archconservative views on taxation and abortion will soon be eclipsed. What Romney seeks is support from the suburban, educated, baby-boomer independents Noonan described, who realize that fixes will require leadership, discipline and perseverance.

Even independents who think Romney is the quintessential flip-flopper, even a craven liar, are beginning to understand that he has faced challenges no Democrat does. To win his party’s nomination, he had to cozy up to the acolytes of the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life and the National Organization for Marriage, not to mention an unheavenly host of Christian evangelicals who thought Mormonism was next to Satanliness.

He did what he had to do to get the nomination. Now, he will do what he needs to do to win the presidency.

For instance, a more moderate and evolving approach to abortion could be rationally linked to constitutional rights. To bolster his switch, he could trot out the durable Mormon counsel “teach them well and let them govern themselves” that he used in 1994 to rationalize his support for “choice.” Ditto same-sex marriage.

We know Romney craves complex, cleverly structured “win-win business deals,” so consider this: Could his recent saber-rattling at Iran and Russia foreshadow a tough Reaganesque approach to foreign policy? Could it also be inextricably linked to an (F.D.) Rooseveltesque “Happy Days Are Here Again” strategy for job creation?

America won’t have sabers to shake at Vladimir Putin and Mahmud Ahmadinejad unless it “invests” more in missiles, tanks, jeeps and jets, which in turn would create more jobs for, among others, unemployed auto workers in Michigan and Ohio who have grown children and aged parents to support. Need it be mentioned that both are critical swing states?

Finally, for the third straight month, the team raised more than $100 million. This explains why, in Romneyland, these are happy days indeed.