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The Tale of Two Romneys

We don't know which is running: the moderate from Massachusetts, or the conservative philosophically

The Tale of Two Romneys
Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney talk to members of the media aboard his campaign plane on March 6, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

The question going into the general election is: who is the real Mitt Romney? We don't really know which of them is running, the moderate from Massachusetts, as Newt Gingrich never tired of saying, or the conservative mantle bearer who is philosophically to the right of Ayn Rand.

Now that Rick Santorum, the social conservative, has suspended his presidential bid, Romney can rejigger his campaign for the general election. That usually means a candidate turns his attention to the wide middle ground where the coveted independents are awaiting his charms.

Romney isn't doing that. In fact, as a recent appearance at a conference of the National Rifle Association suggests, he is banking to the right even more on issues like immigration, abortion and gun rights. He even endorsed US Rep. Paul Ryan's draconian federal budget, which calls, in effect, for gutting Medicare.

Bob Moser of the American Prospect calls this the Santorum Effect:

 ... [Santorum] helped push Romney to the right of the average general-election voter ... Romney cannot "course-correct" back to the centre — except in completely symbolic ways — with hardcore conservatives warily watching for any hints of apostasy.

This of course depends on the sound memory of the media. As it did with President Obama's hope to implement a new tax on millionaires, the media is beginning to forget all those arch-conservative things Romney had to say to get arch-conservatives to believe he was just as arch a conservative as Santorum. You know, like bombing Iran, repealing health care reform laws and eliminating the Education Department.

Now that the GOP nomination process is essentially over (though former House Speaker Gingrich and US Rep. Ron Paul are still in the running), pundits are now reverting to calling Romney a moderate, mostly because that's what he was during the time of his governorship of Massachusetts and because that's what his genuinely conservative rivals kept calling him.

But is it true? Yeah, probably. Romney works too hard to sound conservative but appears at ease when talking about things like the safety net and the embattled middle class (conservatives never say "safety net" or "class"). Romney also seems to think of himself as a competent manager more than a fire-breathing ideologue. He was, after all, the head of a private-equity firm that made money by cleaning up other people's messes.

Such an attitude toward government has roots in American liberalism and neoconservatism (which is like liberalism sans hope). Such theories generally call for the solving of social problems by identifying and applying the right fix. Politics is more puzzle than worldview. Take away the idea that society is perfectible, and you might have the moderate that Mitt might be.

That, of course, assumes he's not going to enact all those conservative things he says he's going to enact as president. But saying isn't being -- and conservatives know this better than most. Noam Scheiber of the New Republic argues that Mitt is too moderate to beat Obama, only because the GOP's base is going to be second-guessing him from now till November, just as it did with Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008. Romney isn't like George W Bush, whose conservative bona fide were unquestioned that he could talk about the poor and without sounding like a candy-ass liberal.

I buy it. You sell conservatives on gays, guns and God, not on rational public policy. If you do, you can't rely on their vote. Romney doesn't have to worry about appealing to independents. He has to worry about his base.