Although Rick Santorum’s withdrawal from the Republican presidential primary on Tuesday may have liberals cheering, the most dangerous candidate is still in the race. Although Mitt Romney is perceived as a moderate, he has given the American people more than enough reason to believe that as president, he would act in a way that would appease the conservative Right, allowing for a narrow ideology to take control of the executive branch.
As a candidate for senate against incumbent Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney professed that he would oppose overturning Roe v. Wade (1973), and, in a letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, he wrote that he would be more pro-gay that Kennedy himself. As governor of Massachusetts 12 years later, he pushed through the state’s historic 2006 heath care reform statute, which requires all residents of the state to purchase health insurance. Earlier, in 1994, he had expressed support for a similar national program.
Beginning with his run for president in 2008, Romney reversed most of his previous positions to appeal to a national Republican audience. To fit the Republican Party’s contemporary shift rightward, the former governor said that he would sign a national amendment barring gay marriage, and would reinstate the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He said that he would attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade, and that he would repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act—all of which cannot be explained away by mere changes of heart.
Furthermore, the 2012 primary season has dragged Romney even further to the right. To compete with the rhetoric of Gingrich and Santorum, Romney has been compelled to say that he would completely defund Planned Parenthood, which spends $33 on women’s health and STD testing for every dollar it spends on abortions. The deficit hawks in his party forced him to express support for the toxic Paul Ryan budget, a hugely unpopular proposal that would privatize Medicare.
Bill Clinton famously tweaked his positions based on public opinion polling, but such deviations were largely in the name of pragmatism—to decide which piece of his proposed policies would gain more traction than others. He used polling to determine what to emphasize, not what his opinion should be, and, in the end, such politicking increased Clinton’s efficacy as president. Romney, however, has recalibrated his convictions based on the electorate he is attempting to appeal to, and as a result is fooling almost no one.
Romney is deeply distrusted among the conservative wing of his party—a Mormon former private equity fund manager who once supported civil unions hardly fits the mold for a Republican candidate for president. Even in Romney’s decisive one-point Ohio primary victory, Santorum carried self-described “very conservative” voters, a category in which Romney has regularly underperformed, by a margin of 13 percent. Of the 18 states Romney has won, only three voted for John McCain in 2008. Surely the Republican base will still fall heavily for Romney in November, but every one of his moves, if he were to be elected President, would be scrutinized by GOP loyalists.
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were able to compromise with the opposite party because their party bases trusted them not to make too many concessions. Though Clinton was criticized from the left for allowing Republicans in Congress to overhaul welfare, he ultimately emerged unscathed, largely due to the Democratic Party’s trust in him. Similarly, Reagan was able to work with Democrats in Congress to stave off the demise of Social Security, yet he is remembered as the stalwart figurehead of the modern conservative movement.
Romney would have no freedom to compromise with Democrats, or even with moderate Republicans. If he did so, it would only confirm for most of the Republican Party that their president truly is the Massachusetts moderate that Santorum and Gingrich painted him out to be, which would severely damage his chances for re-election. Such a narrative might prompt primary challengers, like Pat Buchanan to George H.W. Bush in 1992, and discourage turnout among the Republican base in 2016.
Romney would not be a moderate chief executive. The deeply conservative, religious right wing holds enormous sway in the party, and Romney could not risk losing their support; he would need to go along with the totality of right-wing legislation.
In a larger sense, however, this dependence on party leaders with such narrow ideology puts the United States in danger in another way. Presidents need a level of independence from political concerns. Reagan was smart to disavow the overly belligerent faction of his party and work with the Soviets on the INF treaty. Romney would have no such freedom. If the calls in his party grew loud enough to attack Iran, for example, he would be under much more pressure than other presidents to actually do it. Such a scenario is not implausible; Rick Santorum came in second in the primaries and himself strongly suggested that the United States join Israel in planning to use military force against the country. Moreover, given Romney’s weak personal and political convictions, reliance on strength of character to prevent such a development is foolish.
Fortunately, Romney’s rhetoric during the primaries became so heated that he will have a hard time returning to the center for the general election. Obama holds an 18-point lead among women and an astonishing 56-point lead among Latinos. Even so, Americans should be worried. The deceptively dangerous Romney could be the next President of the United States.