Richard Nixon may have been a crook, but he was no fool.
As recounted by the LA Times’ Jack Nelson (and many others), Nixon told presidential hopeful Bob Dole that to win the Republican nomination, “You have to run as far as you can to the right because that’s where 40 percent of the people who decide the nomination are. And to get elected you have to run as fast as you can back to the middle, because only about 4 percent of the nation’s voters are on the extreme right wing.”
Mitt Romney certainly approves that message — as the presidential debates made clear.
All three debates left their marks. Romney hammered President Obama in the first one, and Obama returned the favor in the second. Obama won the third debate on foreign policy on both style and substance — but not by as much as either man won the first two.
However you scored the encounters, Romney fully deployed the Nixon playbook.
During the Republican primaries, Romney went as far to the right as he possibly could in order to stay with, if not outflank, the wingnuts nipping at his heels. Don’t forget that both Michelle Bachmann (!) and Rick Santorum (!) had the “momentum” at one point during those months. If the extreme rightists made up 40 percent of the Republican primary electorate in the 1990s, it was more like 80 percent by 2012. Romney couldn’t win the nomination without them and so said what they wanted to hear, summed up in the oddly phrased assertion that he was “severely conservative.”
But although “extreme right wing” voters now make up a lot more than the 4 percent of the general electorate Nixon saw in the 1990s, there are not nearly enough of them to elect the Romney who appeared in the primary debates last summer and winter.
So Romney has executed the Nixon pivot or, in pundit parlance, “tacked to the center.” His positions and rhetoric have softened on a whole host of matters — including health care, taxes, abortion, contraception, immigration and education.
Instead of “getting rid” of Obamacare, he now promises to keep the good parts (read: the parts that all but the extremists like).
His positions on abortion and contraception have become decidedly fuzzier.
On immigration, he hinted during the primaries that he was all for Arizona’s ultra-tough law, but now says he only meant part of the law.
In the foreign policy debate, Romney had a golden opportunity to attack Obama on immigration as ferociously as he did during the primaries — Mexico is a foreign country, right? But he passed. There is no comfortable place for him between the right and the center on that one.
In that third debate, Romney moved so close to Obama on so many foreign-policy issues that Democrats gleefully claimed he had all but endorsed the president. Deranged right-winger Glenn Beck tweeted during the debate: “I am glad to know that Mitt agrees with Obama so much. No, really. Why vote?”
Another big problem for Romney is that some of the extremists he courted during the primaries are running for office and he’s stuck supporting them. For example, Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock declared during a debate with his opponent on Tuesday that he opposes aborting pregnancies conceived in rape because “it is something that God intended to happen.”
Of course, if God intended the pregnancy, wouldn’t God also have intended the rape itself since, without it, the life would not have begun? Where exactly does the divine will start and stop?
The sticky issue for Romney is that he had launched a TV ad earlier in the week announcing, “I’m supporting Richard Mourdock for Senate.”
Romney’s camp now says he “disagrees” with Mourdock’s view, which he must do because the statement was loony — but he hasn’t, and really can’t, retract his endorsement.
The Mourdock debacle is just another facet of the GOP’s struggle to win over women voters. Romney’s kinder-gentler approach has gained him some ground, but he is still serving two masters on that. For example, he refuses to say whether he did or does support the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a topic in the second debate, and which his running mate, Paul Ryan voted against.
A new report from the American Association of University Women, using data from a 2009 federal survey of 15,000 college graduates, found that women who worked full-time jobs one year after receiving their diplomas earned 82 cents for every dollar men earned.
That seems like an issue of interest to women, and an argument for the Ledbetter Act, but the far right won’t let Romney go there.
Further proof of all this is the sudden disappearance of Ryan — who was selected to cheer up the right-wingers when they suspected Romney might not be a reliable conservative, but whose record is way too right wing to run on.
As Nixon realized, the modern Republican Party requires its presidential candidates to be two radically different people — the “severe conservative” one day and the “compassionate conservative” the next. It requires a combination of clever waffling on some issues and silence on others.
I’m not saying it won’t work. It has before.
But it certainly must be exhausting.