Who’s Mitt really conning?

If the Etch A Sketch candidate becomes president, he won’t be able to ignore the right – even if he wants to

Topics: Opening Shot,

Who’s Mitt really conning?Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reacts while greeting supporters at a rally in Schaumburg, Ill., after the winning the Illinois Republican presidential primary, Tuesday, March 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) (Credit: AP)

For all of the conservatives who believe that Mitt Romney has been trying to pull a fast one on their movement, Wednesday provided the signature told-you-so moment.

Responding to a question about whether the protracted GOP nominating process was pulling his candidate too far to the right, Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney aide, likened the former governor to an Etch A Sketch animator.  “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehrnstrom said in the CNN interview. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

This is exactly what true believers on the right have been warning about since Romney first set out to run for president – that he’s only playing a Reaganite culture warrior because that’s how Republican presidential nominations are won. As Philip Klein, a conservative writer for the Washington Examiner, put it on Wednesday, “If the Romney campaign is willing to take them for granted before even clinching the nomination, imagine how quickly Romney would abandon conservatives if he ever made it to the White House.”

Fearful righties aren’t alone in interpreting Romney’s ideological transformation this way. The sense that Romney doesn’t really believe the far-right positions he’s taken and that, deep inside, he remains a culturally moderate technocrat has earned him a reputation among many pundits as the “responsible” Republican candidate – one whose heart is near the political center and would govern from there as president.

It would be a mistake, though, to treat Fehrnstrom’s Etch A Sketch comment as a validation of this image. The reality is that conservatives probably don’t have much to fear about a Romney presidency, while those who hope he’d lead as a sensible pragmatist would probably be in for some real disappointment.

First, Romney’s “moderate” Massachusetts may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. For instance, it’s commonly noted that Romney in his 1994 Senate campaign promised to do more for gay rights than Ted Kennedy, and pledged in writing to promote “full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens.” But those words may have reflected simple, pure cynicism. Cultural liberalism and economic conservatism was thought to be the magic formula for Massachusetts Republicans back in ’94 – essential to the election of William Weld as governor in 1990. So Romney might just have been saying what he thought he needed to say to get elected.

That same logic extends to what is supposedly the paramount expression of his secret belief that government can actually do good things: the healthcare reform law he signed – the one that’s causes him so much grief from conservatives in the current campaign.

But the context must be considered. When Romney threw himself into healthcare reform in 2005 and 2006, there was every reason to believe it would enhance his positioning for the 2008 GOP nomination. The plan he constructed was built around what was then still regarded as a conservative idea: the individual mandate. It seemed like the perfect way for Romney to stand out on the national GOP stage: Take an issue that Democrats always run on and always enjoy a polling advantage on and solve it using conservative ideas. It wasn’t until Barack Obama came along years later and implemented Romney’s ideas at the national level that healthcare became a serious primary season problem for him. In other words, assuming that he has the conscience of a centrist may be giving Romney too much credit.

But fine, OK, let’s say he really is a moderate at heart. Even if this is true, there’s no reason to expect he’d be able to govern as one. As president, he’d be at the mercy of congressional Republicans (particularly on the House side) whose ranks are filled with more true believers than ever before. The GOP’s evolution from a Northeast-dominated party of moderates and liberals to an ideologically conservative one driven by evangelicals and anti-government absolutists is now complete. And the non-true believer Republicans who are left on Capitol Hill now live in fear of becoming the next Robert Bennett or Richard Lugar; they have every incentive to fake conservatism the way Romney is now accused of faking it.

This ideological purity is enforced by the conservative absolutists who dominate the party’s opinion-shaping class – television and radio hosts, columnists, bloggers and pundits, all ready to attach the RINO label to any Republican officeholder or candidate who doesn’t toe the line.

Romney would enter office with these conservatives watching him closely, ready to revolt at the first hint of a sellout. The example of George H.W. Bush, who faked his way through the 1988 GOP primaries only to govern from the middle as president, would loom large. When Bush agreed to a 1990 deal with Democrats to cut the deficit by raising taxes, a GOP civil war broke out, with half of the conservatives in the House (led by Newt Gingrich) breaking with Bush. This provided the grist for Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge to Bush.

A President Romney would face even stiffer consequences if he tried anything like this. When Bush was president, the GOP was still evolving. Conservative absolutism wasn’t nearly as universal, and the party’s ranks, on Capitol Hill and in primary voting booths, were still littered with moderates and pragmatists. So when it came to an issue like the tax deal, he could count on just enough Republicans sticking with him to get it passed. In today’s GOP, though, any Republican who joined with Romney in a similar deal would probably face a serious primary challenge.

A better model for how a President Romney would lead can probably be found in John Boehner. The House speaker is a two-decade veteran of Capitol Hill and has history of pragmatic deal-making. But since claiming the speaker’s gavel after the 2010 elections, he’s been little more than a figurehead, aware that the Tea Party base’s profound suspicion of him makes it impossible for him to stray even slightly from the true believers and their agenda.

If he’s elected, Romney will have little choice but to accept similar limitations – and his inner moderate, if it really does exist, will have to stay in hiding until his post-presidency.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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