Even Mitt Romney doesn't like to be called "Romneyesque" these days. The word has a legacy albatross from the 2008 Republican primary, when Romney, a can-do pragmatic governor of a relatively liberal state, swerved to the right to prove himself acceptable to conservative primary voters. "Romneyesque," as an epithet, conveys a willingness to abandon one's core convictions -- in Romney's case, temperance and modesty on social issues -- in order to pander. It was always kind of unfair in that Romney didn't shift his positions much, just his tone. But the label stuck.
It's no surprise that no potential 2012 aspirant wants the Romney-esque tag. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) is in danger of acquiring the label. Dan Balz, an influential and well-respected political journalist, pointed to Pawlenty's flip-flop on climate change, his seeming eagerness to plunge into the tea party crowd's daily obsessions -- whether they be the president's address to schoolkids or the notion that health care mandates violate the 10th amendment or the idea that Sen. Olympia Snowe isn't sufficiently conservative to be a Republican.
No, no no no, say Pawlenty aides. No. No, and no again. Pawlenty is and has always been a conservative, they insist. He never liked being called a "moderate," they insist. His Sam's Club populism doesn't require an expansive role for government. Unlike Romney, Pawlenty has A+ credentials with Christian conservatives, and so on.
But it's not the issues. It's the tone. It's the symbol management. It's the willingness to be comfortable in one's skin -- to be a conservative who doesn't have to prove to the world that he is conservative. Effortless conservatism, in other words, does not require a temperate person like Tim Pawlenty to become a red meat rabble rouser. Absolutely, this is a standard that is imposed on the Republican presidential field by the media, but it's a standard that derives its strength from the reality that conservative primary voters don't want a phony and don't need to be pandered to.
Oh, the temptation is hard to resist. The energy in the Republican Party is in what the White House colloquially refers to as the Beck-Palin wing, but which is more accurately described, I think, as the uncompromising, fed-up ideological conservative wing. A regular conservative might not seem...conservative enough, especially if the new conservative-media-tech culture defines one's bona fides as a function of the decibels of one's voice and one's willingness to emrbace totalitizing metaphors. Pawlenty is kinda like Romney in this sense: his personal orientation is to be a manager and a governing conservative.
And, as regards 2012, heck, if John McCain could find a way to split the Republican Party and win the nomination, surely someone who doesn't have McCain in his name can do it more easily. Of course, McCain had help: Romney's religion hurt him in Iowa, and Mike Huckabee crept just enough to the right of acceptable to ensure that he would steal votes from Romney and yet not be able to convince the less idealogical GOPers in the later-voting states that he wasn't a right-wing boobie.
The mantra repeated by Pawlenty adivsers, who insist that they are speculating about such things because their boss hasn't decided to focus on 2012 yet, is that the most acceptable conservative usually wins the nomination. That is true in the sense that it is true to say that Republicans will nominate a Republican. Ideologies aren't stable over time. Centers of gravity change. And so do candidates.
Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.