Why’d Mitt Romney Take So Long to Move to the Middle?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 12, 2012 · 8:30 AM EDT

The surprise about Mitt Romney’s recent move to the middle isn’t that it occurred but that it took so long.

It has been standard political fare for presidential hopefuls to play to the party faithful during the fight for the nomination and then move to the middle in the general election to woo swing voters, who generally don’t spend their time reading John Rawls, Cornel West, Milton Friedman or Friedrich von Hayek.

Maybe Romney really has embraced the staunchly conservative positions on immigration, taxes and other issues that he espoused during the primaries and much of the general election. But I’d bet you’d have a hard time convincing veteran political reporters and dispassionate observers that’s the real Romney.

Romney is a businessman, not an ideologue, which is why conservatives never really trusted him (and why they voted for any other Republican in the race who had a pulse). It’s also why Democratic strategists feared him from the start.

For a country looking for an alternative to President Barack Obama, Romney the problem-solver looked like a very formidable alternative.

But instead of moving toward the middle during the late spring and summer, the former chief of Bain Capital remained stuck in place, focused more on rallying conservatives behind his candidacy and avoiding the inevitable flip-flopper (Etch A Sketch) attacks.

Romney’s — and GOP strategists’ — problem is that a chunk of the party doesn’t seem to value problem-solving, compromise, experience, coalition-building, intelligence and intellectual sophistication, so any move to the center would entail some risk.

This, after all, is the party that in 2010 nominated Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), Sharron Angle (Nevada), Ken Buck (Colorado) and Joe Miller (Alaska) for the Senate, exceedingly weak nominees who lost their races in November during a huge national Republican wave. (Miller, of course, lost to Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who won a write-in campaign.)

And this cycle, the same party nominated Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in Indiana for the Senate, turning two slam-dunk victories into much more difficult races than they needed to be. And, of course, it’s also the party of Rep. Paul Broun (Ga.), a medical doctor who seems to think that evolution is a lie “straight from the pit of Hell.”

So maybe it’s no wonder Romney was slow in moving back to the middle.

If Romney the conservative has appeal to the GOP base, Romney the pragmatist is much more appealing to swing voters and suburban women, the kinds of voters who could well determine whether Obama wins a second term. And when you are losing nationally at the beginning of October, there is plenty of reason to change message and positioning, if you can.

Democrats and liberals have reacted to the new, more moderate Romney with alarm. To some, he’s a flip-flopper. To others, he is a fraud and a liar. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein calls him a “pragmatic executive,” which doesn’t sound bad until you read the next four sentences.

“When he needs to govern from the center, he does. When he needs to lurch to the right, off he goes. So if you want to know how he’ll govern, don’t listen to what he says. Look at who he has reason to fear,” Klein writes, clearly suggesting that because Romney will “fear” the right, he will govern from that way.

Because a Romney victory would likely produce a GOP Senate to go along with the Republican House, Klein argues, “there’s little reason to believe Romney would find himself forced to work with Democrats if he was president, at least at the outset.”

“There’s no way he’ll pick fights with the right in order to govern from the center,” he adds.

Maybe. Or maybe not. But I’m not sure why Klein thinks Romney would be less likely to govern from the center than Obama, who had a chance to show his political independence by embracing the Simpson-Bowles plan but never did.

In any case, the idea that Romney would have no incentive to reach out to Democrats simply sounds wrong.

Even if Republicans win the Senate, there is no way they will have the super-majority in that body that Democrats did for almost nine months. To get anything through both chambers of Congress, a President Romney certainly would have a strong incentive to reach out to Senate Democrats.

Klein may be right that Romney would be intimidated by conservatives and might choose not to govern from the center. But Romney the problem-solver might decide that doing what is right for the country might be good politics after all.

Strategically, Romney has found the right positioning for the campaign’s final month. It’s up to Democrats to discredit his new message, both in the paid media and the earned media. Vice President Joseph Biden will have one opportunity, and the president will have two others. Their ability to win that argument could determine who will be sworn in as president in January.