The Corner

Misunderstanding the Romney Campaign

In Slate, John Dickerson says that Romney has done as well as he has because he has ignored conservatives’ advice to run on conservative ideas. David Brooks had written earlier that Romney would, if elected, “observe the core lesson of this campaign: conservatism loses; moderation wins. Romney’s prospects began to look decent only when he shifted to the center.”

Dickerson elaborates on this case:

It’s conventional Republican wisdom that Romney succeeded in the first debate because voters—particularly married women voters—found him to be a likeable, moderate fellow. The campaign has been running with this ever since. Previously Romney had been downplaying his conservative positions. Now he is either running away, or, in some cases—like his position on legislation to allow companies to deny employees contraception coverage—actively changing them to a more moderate posture.

I don’t think any of this is right. The conventional Republican wisdom is that Romney succeeded in that first debate because he looked presidential and solutions-oriented, and because he didn’t come across as the extremist a thousand ads had called him. Most Republicans don’t think that “extremism” and “moderation” are the only options available to a member of their party.

Romney hasn’t “actively” or, for that matter, passively changed his position on the legislation “to allow companies to deny employees contraception coverage”–that is, to return to the pre-Obama status quo on contraception coverage. Dickerson seems to be assuming that when Romney denied, in the Hofstra debate, that he wanted to let employers dictate access to contraception, he was saying that they should be forced to provide it themselves. He wasn’t. Just a few days later, at the Catholic-organized Al Smith dinner, he took a shot at “the Obamacare mandates for the church” and reiterated his support for “the rights of conscience.”

It seems to me that a lot of pundits are confusing tone for substance, and letting Romney’s past bias their perceptions of the fall campaign. I’m happy to concede to Brooks–even to proclaim with Brooks–that some forms of conservatism don’t sell electorally; and of course it’s true that candidates emphasize different things in primaries and general elections. People who see an Etch-a-Sketch moment in this fall’s campaign, though, seem to me to be looking pretty hard for it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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