Mitt Romney has solidified his status as the sole candidate of the moderate wing of the Republican Party. He vastly outpaced all his opponents in fundraising in the last quarter. Jon Huntsman attacks Romney relentlessly, aware that his only hope is to supplant Romney as the moderate choice, but he barely registers in polls. Last week Romney quickly starting scooping up endorsements from Tim Pawlenty supporters after Pawlenty proved insufficiently extremist for Iowa Republican activists. While Romney’s overall front runner status has slipped thanks to the rise of Michele Bachmann and entry of Rick Perry, Romney remains the candidate of mainstream and establishment Republicans.
At first glance, this might seem natural and intuitive. Romney’s record in Massachusetts is reasonable and pragmatic. But for the last four years Romney has been running for president, assiduously courting conservatives. His current positions—staunchly anti-abortion rights, anti–gay rights, anti-immigration and unconvinced of anthropogenic climate change—are anathema to the socially moderate elite wing of the GOP. So why are they sticking by Romney?
There are four reasons: the importance of biography over platform, the widespread assumption that Romney doesn’t believe what he says, the lower salience of social issues and the lunacy of his competition.
After the gross incompetence of the Bush administration, mainstream Republicans want someone who conveys competence. Romney, with his successful business career and carefully coiffed, Power Point presentation–filled persona, has that base covered. “What Mitt Romney benefited from in 2008 is that there’s a real hunger for a candidate who can really do the job of president,” says David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter whose website FrumForum.com is the hub of intelligent and reasonable conservatism. “Romney convinces people he can do the job. As a manager of large organizations and a turnaround artist, he’s especially appealing on that ground.”
Then there’s the way that Romney ironically benefits from the comically brazen, dishonest nature of his pandering to the right. Since it’s so blatantly obvious that he doesn’t really think we need, say, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, no one in the Wall Street wing of the GOP needs to worry when he spouts such irrational dogma.
Republican elites have long backed candidates who take reactionary social positions, safe in the knowledge that they will never act on them, or never have the chance to. “There’s no possibility of making abortion illegal,” says Bruce Bartlett, a former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who has since left the Republican Party. “There’s no possibility that we’re going to pass legislation on prayer in schools. Social issues are not really legislative issues. They’re just signaling mechanisms, a way of saying ‘I’m one of you, vote for me.’ We saw this in Reagan, where he never did anything on these issues.”
Of course, Romney’s biggest advantage in holding onto mainstream Republican support while adopting right-wing positions is the fact that he has no competition for their favor. “He’s the most moderate candidate with a chance of winning,” says Bartlett. “The other candidates are a mile right of center and he’s only three-quarters of a mile. Maybe [moderate Republicans] hope he’s not completely insane and he just says the stupid things he says because the Republican electorate demands it and they hope that he’ll govern in as he did in Massachusetts. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.”