Dar-Wei Chen: Romney's rightward stretch

By Dar-Wei Chen, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published March 12, 2012

This year’s GOP presidential candidate nominating session has elicited a wide range of reactions from observers, but one complaint shared by most people is the length of the process — it’s gone far too long. Americans have already seen more than 20 debates between the candidates and are ready to see one candidate emerge as the nominee.

On Super Tuesday — the nickname for March 6th’s 10 primaries — presumed frontrunner Mitt Romney was the candidate with the best chance to take the lead. However, he wasn’t able to deliver the proverbial “knockout punch” to eliminate opponent Rick Santorum, and thus the lengthy show continues. The longer the primary process goes on, the more pandering to the right Romney has to do in order to gain favor with the still-powerful Tea Party sect of the GOP. Since the time before Election Day is finite, every day he doesn’t have the nomination sealed is one he can’t spend coming back leftward to electable positions.

Not only is the extended primary process allowing President Barack Obama to take notes on the usually-moderate Romney’s extreme lurches to the right, it’s also going to hurt Romney’s electability in November. Let’s look at some of the issues where Romney has stretched so far to the right that returning to moderate positions might be difficult, even with his flip-flopping expertise.

Women’s health has been in the political spotlight for the past few weeks. In a Fox News interview last year, Romney told host Mike Huckabee that he would support a constitutional amendment defining the “beginning of life at conception.” Of course, such an amendment would outlaw many common forms of birth control — a vicious attack on women’s reproductive rights.

If Romney took this “personhood amendment” stance to the general election, voters would roundly repudiate him across the country. But in the GOP primary season, he knows that this far-right position is crucial to winning the nomination. Just how conservative is this position? Look no further than to what happened late last year in Mississippi, a state so conservative that in 2011, 46 percent of its residents wanted interracial marriage to be illegal and another 14 percent were unsure about the issue. When a ballot initiative for the “life begins at conception” definition was brought to a vote, more than 55 percent of Mississippians rejected it. Romney is more conservative than Mississippi on this issue.

Even when Obama orchestrated the killing of reviled terrorist Osama bin Laden last May, Romney couldn’t quite give credit to the president during a time of American triumph. He once told Fox News’ Chris Wallace of the order to take out bin Laden: “Any president would have done that, but this one did, and that’s a good thing.” Perhaps we should be glad that he’s not conservative or doggedly anti-Obama enough to criticize Obama directly, but he had to throw a bone to right-wing zealots by conceding only a backhand compliment. Why couldn’t Romney — or the rest of the GOP for that matter — just give credit where it’s due?

So Romney is stretching himself pretty far to the right on those two issues. Yet Romney might actually be at his most conservative on the issue of the auto industry bailouts. After reports that General Motors posted record profits in 2011 – just two years after being bailed out by the government – Romney still defended his 2008 New York Times opinion piece “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” during debates. He couldn’t seem to care less about the fact that millions of jobs were saved and an entire economic sector was revitalized — the anti-government faction of his party beckoned. Remember, Michigan is Romney’s home state, and Romney’s father, George, was a very popular governor here. But Romney won the Michigan primary by only three points over Santorum. His rightward stretch almost cost him what should’ve been a gimme.

As long as the primaries drag on, Romney has to keep stretching to the right. And like a rubber band, if he keeps stretching in one direction, he’s going to reach a breaking point where he can’t return to a normal (read: electable) state. Vice President Joe Biden has been campaigning on the slogan “bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” The conviction-deficient Romney probably wouldn’t have had the courage to call the bin Laden raid, and he all but declared that he wanted GM dead. Attacking women’s rights isn’t a good demographics-based strategy either, to say nothing about policy. Looks like all this stretching isn’t going to help his presidential run.

Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at chendw@umich.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @DWChen_MDaily.