Mitt the Moderate: An Alternate Campaign History

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This might be a different presidential campaign if Mitt Romney's spokesmen weren't so often clarifying things their candidate has said. If only Romney were allowed to say things in interviews without his staff correcting them, as they did when Romney said he'd keep some parts of Obamacare Sunday, pundits would not be talking about how Romney is still working to "shore up his base" but about his move to the center for the general election. (Some conservatives think Romney has the opposite problem -- he's too Democrat Lite.) But let's play "what if" for a moment: What if all those clarifications never happened? What if, after tacking to the right in the primary, Romney did what George W. Bush did before him and tack back to the center for the general? Indeed, one way he did that in his re-election campaign was by giving Romney and other then-moderates prime speaking spots at the 2004 convention; as the Boston Globe reported then, "Massachusetts Republicans with moderate positions on most social issues, Romney and [Lt. Gov. Kerry] Healey also fit into the moderate tone that the Bush campaign wants to project for its convention."

Tacking to the center was what many people expected Romney to do, too, only a few months ago. His own adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, admitted as much when he compared the campaign to an Etch-A-Sketch. In the uproar that ensued, National Journal's Jim O'Sullivan noted "that a freshly nominated candidate... would tack to the center.... is a hardly a novel political strategy for the general election." In December, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating said despite Newt Gingrich and Romney taking conservative positions in the debates, "Both of them could tack center-right." In March, BuzzFeed's Ben Smith said on CNN that Romney "would like to tack to the center... His advisers are saying, you know what, this thing is over; we're inevitable. And for the same reason that we're weak among Republicans, the independents are going to love us." In April, Obama's linking of Romney to Paul Ryan's budget made "it tougher for Mr. Romney to tack to the center once he gets past the primaries," The New York Times said. A moderate Mitt in the general was a given. We indulged in some counterfactual history and wondered what the race would have been like so far if he had done so. Here's a guide to the Romney campaign that could have been before all of the clarifications.

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June 29: Romney says he supports the Dream Act. "For those that are here as the children of those that came here illegally, I want to make sure they have a permanent answer to what their status will be," Romney told Newsmax. "And I've indicated in my view that those who serve in the military and have advanced degrees would certainly qualify for that kind of permanence." The Dream Act allows kids who came here illegally and served in the military or went to college to become citizens, but Romney had previously only supported the military part, not the college part. 

  • Alternate campaign: Romney, softening some of his immigration positions he took during the Republican primary, maybe improves his standing of 29 percent Latinos' voters. Republicans would be less worried about his immigration positions. Polls care a lot more about the economy than immigration, but they overwhelmingly support the Dream Act.
  • Real campaign: Romney spokesman Ryan Williams issues a statement saying Romney "simply misspoke in this interview." Romney supports more visas for high-skilled workers, so that's what he was referring to in the "advanced degrees" part of his quote.


August 23: Romney says he's looking out for the little guy. “Big business is doing fine in many places – they get the loans they need, they can deal with all the regulation. They know how to find ways to get through the tax code, save money by putting various things in the places where there are low tax havens around the world for their businesses," he said at a Minnesota fundraiser.

  • Alternate campaign: Romney uses this moment to cast off the Obama campaign's caricature of him as a robber baron who hates the poor and middle class. He backs letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy but insists we need more tax cuts for the middle class. He takes the opportunity to offer more details to rebut the Tax Policy Center's finding that his plan raises taxes on the middle class.
  • Real campaign: Romney's spokesman Andrea Saul clarifies, "Governor Romney has long said we need to simplify the tax code, close loopholes, and create a more level playing field for American businesses. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will be champions for small business, encouraging investment, entrepreneurship, and innovation." Romney promises to lower tax rates but close loopholes so he's not really lowering rates on the rich. But Citizens for Tax Justice says that's "impossible."


August 27: Romney breaks from the Republican Party -- and his own running mate -- saying he favors legal abortion in cases where the mother's health is threatened. "My position has been clear throughout this campaign," Romney told CBS News. "I'm in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother." Pro-lifers say health of the mother would allow too many abortions, as when Paul Ryan said "the health exception is a loophole wide enough to drive a Mack truck through it."

  • Alternate campaign: Romney sticks with this comment, and Democrats can't draw as strong a contrast with all their speeches at their convention about abortion rights. Republicans perhaps ease the gender gap a little. Women are more pro-choice than men, but the gap on the abortion issue is smaller than the one between Democrats and Republicans.
  • Real campaign: Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul emailed The Washington Post that afternoon, clarifying, “Gov. Romney’s position is clear: he opposes abortion except for cases of rape, incest and where the life of the mother is threatened.” No health exception.


September 9: Romney says he backs the most popular parts of Obamacare. "Of course there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I'm going to put in place," he said on Meet the Press. ''One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage."

  • Alternate campaign: Romney takes credit for passing health care as governor in Massachusetts and offers a health plan to help him cut into Obama's 15-point advantage on health care.
  • Real campaign: Later Sunday night, Romney's staff clarified to National Review that he supported coverage for people with pre-existing conditions who had continuous coverage, which was basically the law before Obamacare. It means that insurance has to cover you if you have a pre-existing condition and have always had insurance. If you dropped your insurance for a little while, you're screwed.

Of course, what could have been was widely thought what would be. Romney has been running for president for nearly six years now, and for a long time those who argued his potential as a presidential candidate focused on his ability to win over blue-state voters to the Republican line. Way back in February 2007, Noemie Emery wrote at The Weekly Standard, "Urbane and urban, Romney comes from Massachusetts by way of Michigan, won as a Republican in what is perhaps the most liberal state in the Union, and has quartered his campaign in the North End of Boston, as far from the Sunbelt as is humanly possible." A National Journal poll of Republican insiders published December 1, 2007 included this insider's comment: "The only hope for reducing the level of partisanship in Washington would be the election of a president like [Barack] Obama or [Mitt] Romney, who have shown an ability to transcend the partisan divide." Mulling over his fizzled 2008 primary effort, Politico noted that Romney "has a compelling story of having been a Republican governor in a 'blue' state who can bridge the divide of Washington." The ability for Romney to go moderate was also the reason, frequently cited through last fall, that Romney was reportedly the Republican that Obama feared the most. Some even speculated Romney could turn Northeastern states purple. "As solid centrists," the Globe and Mail wrote of Romney and Jon Huntsman, "they are the Republicans most likely to appeal to independent voters." That view has been clarified. A moderate Mitt isn't just an alternate history. At one point, it was supposed to be the future.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.