One flip-flop too many

Obama has just been re-elected and Romney has acknowledged defeat. The election postmortems on why Romney failed have not yet had time to appear, but they will be a mixed bag.  An election that remained too close to call until the polls closed cannot easily be interpreted. There are many possible causes of the outcome, and they will all be duly enumerated by the media but there is bound to be disagreement on their order of importance.

One cause that may well be overlooked altogether is Romney’s skill at doing a flip-flop in order to be perceived by political decision-makers as precisely the kind of person they are looking for.  Irritation about that attribute may not yet show up in the analyses because Romney’s flip-flopping has gradually become a bit of a joke, a rather amusing idiosyncrasy that is part of his persona.

As Governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, Mitt Romney had gained the reputation of a rather middle-of-the-road Republican, but during the campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination he soon discovered that this reputation did not improve his chances of being nominated. On February 10 of this year, he therefore assured the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that in the deep blue state of Massachusetts he had been a ‘severely conservative’ Republican Governor. By the end of June, once the Supreme Court had ruled Obamacare constitutional, Romney vowed that as President he would act to repeal Obamacare ‘on day one.’ On foreign policy he always stressed the need for America to be strong, adding that a strong America needed a strong military. He blamed Obama for communicating weakness abroad.

After all this had helped him win the nomination (no more than ‘helped,’ for what really clinched it was his choice of ultra-conservative Paul Ryan as his running mate), he kept a low profile until the presidential debates before making his shift back to the political centre by toning down, or almost abandoning, his strongly conservative – and in foreign policy belligerent – stances in order to win the election. The third debate, with its focus on foreign policy, was the most striking example of how far Romney was willing, or able, to go in this respect. In this last debate, in Boca Raton, Florida on October 22, he began by saying that when Obama had become President, ‘Iran looked at this administration and saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.’  But this must have been an overlooked remnant from an earlier script, for when subsequently discussing individual countries Romney agreed with just about every policy established by the Obama administration.

While watching this in the middle of the night in the Netherlands, I first wondered why Romney did not package his reversals a little better, but then it occurred to me that he probably did not know these foreign policy issues well enough to come up with sophisticated explanations of his changes of heart. This must be why he simply launched the new versions of his point of view, hoping that no one would remember his earlier positions.

In his final stump speeches of the past week, Romney made his switch back to the political centre in the domestic domain as well. He spoke naturally and comfortably about single mothers who scrimp and save and fathers who work two jobs, making clear that he would be their president, too. Now that all the shifts – from middle-of-the road to severely conservative and back – have been completed, many people have begun to ask themselves what the real Romney is like. What they do know for sure is that Romney is America’s number one flip-flopper, and they privately suspect that he is so focused on success that he probably doesn’t mind having that reputation too much.

It is tempting to believe that Romney is at least closer to the centre than to the extreme right and that he was sincere in his desire to replace Obama’s style of government by leadership that brings people together. In the Financial Times of November 2, Philip Stephens ventured an educated guess as to the character of the authentic Mr Romney. He wrote: “The Republican candidate has been for and against most things over the years. Sometimes he has been pro-life, sometimes pro-choice. He has been on the side of Hispanic immigrants and of those backing “self-deportation”. What’s fair to say, however, is that he looks more comfortable in the role of moderate than as Tea Party cheerleader. The authentic Mr Romney is probably closer to the politician of the presidential debates than of the primary stump speeches.”

Other commentators have shared this view while admitting it was just a hunch. Now that Obama has been re-elected, we may never know what role Mitt Romney feels most comfortable in. But if he had won and really did feel more comfortable in the role of moderate, he would have been prevented from playing that role by his horde of backers, from discreet billionaires to noisy Tea Party activists, who never ceased to doubt his conservative credentials but reluctantly supported his nomination for the sole reason that he was deemed to be the only candidate who could beat Obama.

Different people voted for different reasons. But one reason why people voted for Obama or didn’t vote at all, may be that Romney had done just one flip-flop too many. Claiming to be ‘severely conservative’ to win the nomination and then acting like a moderate to win the election, is not the sort of behaviour that the average voter, Democrat or Republican, particularly likes.  Many Republicans could accept the first flip-flop as the sort of thing it takes to win in politics, but the flip-flop back went against their grain. They may have found it difficult to vote for a Republican nominee they could not respect. The preposterous current debate on what the real Romney is like must have annoyed them much more than it has voters who wouldn’t vote for Romney anyway.

The result of the election must be a great disappointment for Governor Romney, but it is far worse for Paul Ryan. He is after all the one who helped hesitant conservatives overcome their doubts about Romney’s conservative credentials by the single act of accepting to be his running mate. The outcome can hardly be beneficial to his political career. There is tragic irony in the way America’s most unwavering conservative and its number one flip-flopper have gone down in the same election.