April 24, 2012        A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2012

If you liked the gymnastic feats of Mitt Romney during the long, hot debate season and the even hotter primaries and caucuses, then you must be head-over-heels in love with the contortionist moves of Romney these days. Talk about nimble!

The great pivoting act of American contemporary presidential politics has always been the pirouette that candidates must make once they have succeeded in acquiring the requisite number of delegates--or, as is more often the case--once they have bested their major intra-party rivals.

The theory is this: whether Democrat or Republican, a candidate can succeed only by marshaling, corralling, or appropriating the party's base. This means that Democrats must appeal to their left, and Republicans must appeal to their right. Then, with their nomination secure, the candidate can pivot back toward the essential center--for it is the largely unaffiliated (read: independents, centrists, moderates, unaligned) voter who decides elections, not blocs of conservatives or liberals. Candidates who fail to make the turn convincingly will almost surely go down to defeat.

Barry Goldwater could not run as Goldwater, nor could Walter Mondale run as Mondale. And if one moves too far in an effort to appease the most strident components of the party base--well, forget about it. Check with the George McGovern people to see how that one worked out.

For Romney, it all happened with breathtaking speed. Newt Gingrich had been neutralized and Ron Paul had slipped back to the bottom of the charts. That left only Rick Santorum, the last of the insurrectionists, battling on his right flank. Once Santorum ran out of operating cash earlier this month, forcing him to step aside, the path became clear all the way to Tampa.

But, like all candidates since the 1950s, Romney must now begin to answer for his choice of words and the dance steps that have taken him this far. If the current media buzz is to believed, Romney must win back the support of women, Latinos, Catholics, Jews, the middle class, students and the young, retirees and the old, and pretty much every voting bloc that does not physically resemble Steve Martin.

The pivot is easier when the name at the top of the ticket already occupies a more centrist footprint. The most useful option is to then pick a running mate inclined toward the language of the party's base: Gerald Ford chose Bob Dole, widely perceived as being to the President's right; likewise George H.W. Bush chose Dan Quayle, and in 1996, Bob Dole chose Jack Kemp. Democrats engage in a similar dance: Jimmy Carter, a centrist, chose Mondale, a marriage that worked generally well; Bill Clinton chose Al Gore, a less-than-perfect marriage, though it lasted. John Kerrey chose John Edwards, an unhappy marriage from the start to the finish.

But the great Debate Season of 2011-12 proved that one can take even a good thing too far. Those two dozen GOP debates succeeded in drawing large numbers of viewers to Fox, CNN and ABC, particularly in the late summer and early fall of 2011--moments of reality TV extravagance when we tuned in each week to watch the merger of Electoral Democracy with Survivor and American Idol, when we deferred leaving the room for fear we might miss the next words out of Michelle Bachmann's mouth about vaccinations or the next spin cycle by Herman Cain on his 9-9-9 Plan.

One night I literally sat on the edge of my seat thinking Rick Perry was one tiny fraction of a second away from slugging Mitt Romney live on stage. This was the presidential election as Rollerball; the GOP debate glitzed up to resemble an Ultimate Fighting event. I still haven't decided who was laughing more loudly from their grave--Paddy Chayefsky or Marshall McLuhan.

The effect of those debates was striking, especially on the tenor and tone of Mitt Romney, who was then, and remained until a few weeks ago, the Man to Beat. Romney was forced into a long, arduous series of mostly defensive moves meant to appeal to the Right while Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum took turns dominating the conversation, goading Romney and testing his defenses. Romney's journey toward the most conservative wing of the GOP may have made him stronger and healthier when it comes to consolidating the Republican base, but between now and late August he must find a way back toward the center.

Still, the Republican Party has always been better at this sort of thing, even after the demise of the Eleventh Commandment. Since the realignments of the 1970s and 80s the GOP's center-of-gravity exerts a potent suasion, even upon the insurrectionists. Slowly but surely Republicans fall into line and support their candidate. And the great electoral template shifts of the Reagan era still favor the GOP even when there is a popular Democrat in the White House. In fact Romney has time--though it is scarce--to win back some of those "groups" popularly viewed as hostile toward the former governor. Hillary Rosen's working mom blunder, which turned into a week-long brouhaha over the role of women as mothers and homemakers, and ultimately challenged the notion of women as a monolithic bloc of voters, showed us just how fluid and mercurial these perceptions can be.

So today, in keeping with that tradition, Mitt Romney campaigned with Florida's Marco Rubio--a potential running-mate for the presumptive nominee--at his side. And, also in keeping with GOP custom and culture, Rudy Giuliani--a former Gingrich man who had once called Romney a habitual flip-flopper--made a warm and very public endorsement of Romney.

The Rubio factor is especially important. Among this past weekend's most potent media talking points was Romney's Latino Gap, and Rubio has floated immigration reform proposals which include a more conservative-friendly version of the so-called DREAM Act, one of several possible bridgeheads between the GOP and Latinos. Romney however, did not take the bait even as Rubio stood a few feet away on the same stage. Instead, Romney demurred, suggesting only that he is looking into alternative immigration plans which may include, among other ideas, using U.S. military service or completion of a four year college degree as tickets to remain in the U.S. but without actual citizenship.

Rubio, who has said repeatedly in the past he is not considering the VP slot nor is he discussing it with anyone, is nevertheless seen as important to the GOP strategy of winning back the Latino vote. So Romney must be seen on the same stage as Rubio as often as his schedule will allow, just as he needs the open support of Jeb Bush--another Floridian with deep popularity among Latinos.

Then of course there is the "youth" vote, that much-sought-after demographic which in the world of marketing motivates everyone from motion picture studios and cell phone designers to soft drink makers and shoe manufacturers. George McGovern once famously road the crest of a great wave of motivated young voters to his party's nomination in 1972, and that same summer, Richard Nixon's re-election planners retaliated by jamming enough students and young people into the convention hall after Nixon's acceptance speech that Miami Beach resembled a sort of Woodstock for the Brady Bunch crowd.

Indeed, student loans--and their repayment and their interest rates--have also been front-and-center. For once in a long time both Democrats and Republicans seem in complete agreement that an overhaul is necessary--and quickly. The long recession has caused an entanglement of related problems for families and students: young people see a job market so constricted and limited that higher education seems the only reasonable path toward a decent job, any job; parents, their long-term budgets and savings thrashed by the recession, must instead guide their kids to ever-larger loans to pay for education; then, someone--student or parent--must face the cost of paying off these loans at the higher interest rates now deemed necessary in a more restrictive credit market. And with colleges and universities passing along more costs directly to students and parents, the problems compound on all sides.

President Obama, who usually scores well with young people, is advised by his strategists that many college students are even more guarded about the economy than their middle-aged parents. So the President campaigns in front of large crowds in as many college towns as possible, with the likelihood that Mitt Romney will follow suit very soon. Each wants the "youth" vote and the "family" vote.

For Mitt Romney, now the presumptive nominee and perhaps only a few hours away from sealing big wins in five states (Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York), the challenge is to somehow bring the vaguely defined blocs of potential voters back for a second look: women, young people, Latinos, and that always elusive creature, the independent voter. And Romney must do this without irritating the GOP base, many of whom were already suspicious of the former governor for his past reversals on issues like abortion and same sex marriage.

So now the gymnastics begin, and we find out just how flexible Mitt Romney's skeletal structure can be. Stay tuned.

Copyright 2012, Thursday Review


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