Can a conservative case be made for Mitt Romney? Michael Gerson tried mightily at the Washington Post yesterday, leaning heavily on Romney’s business experience and cultural background to argue that Romney’s current positions are probably more natural to him than those he adopted for more than a decade as a Massachusetts politician. Unfortunately for Gerson, he has to come up with some way to explain why Romney wouldn’t slide back to his earlier positions once he faced some political headwinds on the national stage, and this is the best Gerson can do:
Romney’s main political vulnerability is a serious one. Running for Massachusetts’ governor in 2002, he was a pro-choice, economically centrist, culturally liberal, business-oriented Republican. Running for president in 2008, he was a thoroughly pro-life, orthodox supply-side, culturally conservative, Fox News Republican. Romney’s shape-shifting 2008 campaign only reinforced the impression of a consultant-driven candidate.
But conservatives — unsurprised by human frailty — know that great republics are constructed out of flawed materials. Some of Romney’s transformation is explainable as the result of ideological regionalism. It would be a rare candidate who could run and win in Massachusetts with the same message offered to Republican caucus-goers in Iowa.
Well, I don’t know about rare. Ronald Reagan did it — twice — and didn’t do it by bending to the political headwinds or aligning himself with the muddy middle. Dwight Eisenhower did it twice, too, making them the only Republicans to win Massachusetts in the past 60 years. They did so by being men of principle rather than conservatives of convenience.
Gerson then argues that Romney won’t change direction again because, er, he’s changed too often in the past:
Even conservatives who buy none of these explanations may calculate that Romney is acceptable. Precisely because he has a history of ideological heresy, it would be difficult for him to abandon his current, more conservative iteration. He has committed himself on key conservative issues. Having flipped, he could not flop without risking a conservative revolt. As a result, conservatives would have considerable leverage over a Romney administration.
That’s such a tortured explanation that I’m awaiting a Geneva Convention hearing on the matter. Are we to believe that a Romney administration would credit conservatives for his nomination and election? That might have been true in 2008 when conservatives rallied to his side when John McCain’s nomination began to look inevitable, but that’s certainly not going to be the case in 2012. If Romney gets the nomination and the win, he won’t get it carried on the shoulders of conservatives.
The most laughable assertion here, though, is that Romney’s record of inconsistency works as a guarantee of future consistency. That’s not an argument; it’s a rationalization. Since when has a history of political expediency been a good indicator of future principled stands?
The one argument for Romney that actually works with conservatives is that he’d be a better President than our current incumbent by a country mile. That’s also true of most of the rest of the field, though. If the nomination went to Romney, I’d have no trouble pulling the lever for Mitt in November 2012, and I’d be ruddy pleased to do so. But while the primaries are still in front of us, perhaps we can be spared the rationalizations aimed at getting conservatives to back Romney rather than test the rest of the field for a more principled conservative who could win a general election and properly lead this country in the right direction.