The answers are “yes,” quite a bit of “probably not” and a little bit of “maybe so.”
George Will’s blistering column about Mitt Romney’s candidacy can be split into two parts. The first part explores a few of Romney’s mryiad flip-flops, straddles and waffles on various issues. Is Will right about Romney being the “pretzel candidate”? Yes. Indeed, on this point, Will did not even scratch the salt off the pretzel.
However, it’s the second, shorter conclusion of Will’s column that is getting the buzz in political circles:
Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November, is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable; he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate. Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the Tea Party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming.
Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from “data” (although there is precious little to support Romney’s idea that in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants is a powerful magnet for such immigrants) and who believes elections should be about (in Dukakis’s words) “competence,” not “ideology.” But what would President Romney competently do when not pondering ethanol subsidies that he forthrightly says should stop sometime before “forever”? Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for this?
Although the future is full of possibilities, Will is probably wrong about most of this. The general consensus among political scientists is that in presidential elections, the dominant factor is the economy, with candidate ideology being a distant second. Indeed, the studies suggest that a moderate does 1% or 2% better. For those skeptical of academic consensus, note this finding holds for Democrats as well as Republicans. The general rule seems to be holding up this year, as public opinion polling generally has shown Romney a few points more competitive than NotRomney against Obama throughout the campaign to date. Of course, state level results are more important than national polling, but if the GOP nominates NotRomney, Team Obama will run the 2010 playbook by which Dems won Senate campaigns in key states by painting all those tea party energies as extremism (I question whether that strategy would be effective, but consider that Dems are likely to have more favorable turnout demographics in a presidential election than in a midterm).
Moreover, it is far from clear that having Romney at the top of the ticket would drag down Senate candidates. Will provides no examples of where he thinks it might happen. Notably, 2012 GOTV efforts will be conducted by groups affiliated with both Karl Rove and the Koch Bros. More conservative Senate candidates will likely get assistance from the latter, and possibly from the former (In 2010, American Crossroads stepped up in Nevada after the RNC and NRSC ran away).
Is Mitt Romney the GOP’s Michael Dukakis? Here again, Dukakis performed about as well in 1988 as would be predicted from the economy at the time. Although we remember his missteps as a candidate, we tend to forget that the effect of those missteps was marginal. Furthermore, as noted, to the extent Romney is a squish, it marginally helps him, relative to a NotRomney nominee.
None of which is intended to dismiss marginal effects. In a close election, what happens at the margin is important, perhaps crucial. Thus, whether Will is ultimately right depends on the reader’s own assessment about how close the election may be, which ought to turn mostly on the reader’s certainty in his or her forecast for the economy.
On another level, Will’s final question is perhaps not quite the dig at Romney it seems to be in print. Has conservatism come so far to settle for this? If NotRomney voters cannot settle on a consensus NotRomney candidate, conservatism will have to settle for Romney. And that is not Romney’s fault in the slightest. Will’s real dig may be at what conservatism has managed to produce as the alternative to Romney.