Mitt Romney’s clear win in the first debate shifted the momentum in the race and arrested the talk of his campaign’s incompetence. But the most interesting aspect of his performance—completely unexpected by observers, pretty obviously including the president—was the way Romney appeared to position himself as a moderate, contradicting the main positions he’d taken for the previous sixteen or so months of campaigning.
This abrupt shift on his part emphasized, to me, the central fact of this election: that the Republican Party is—has made itself into—a party that is (in all likelihood) too far to the right to win national elections. Romney demonstrated at the debate that he understands this, and that the only way for him to avoid the drubbing he saw coming is by running away from the party and denying its agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, decimation of the domestic budget, and global belligerence. The big question of the campaign’s final weeks is whether he can continue to pull this off.
During Romney’s September swoon, when he lost ground to the president in key states owing to a series of large and small errors, blame was laid on his campaign. But as I’ve argued in The Daily Beast and elsewhere, the core problem hasn’t been his team, or his oft-noted lack of charisma. It’s the Republican Party’s radicalism and the endless gauntlet of litmus tests its factions have forced Romney to pass. Consider: Romney’s biggest blunder in September was revealed by David Corn of Mother Jones, in the form of the now famous video, that Romney believes 47 percent of Americans to be in essence freeloaders. If he does lose this race, that event will have been decisive.
This was commonly called a Romney error or miscalculation. But in fact it was just the opposite. Romney’s remarks were carefully calibrated to reassure two key conservative factions that he shares their view of the world and would enforce it as president. To the rich donors to whom he was speaking in Boca Raton, he clearly felt he had to pick up and develop the theme about the people who pay no income taxes, an argument that sprang to life on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page in 2002 and has subsequently taken hold as a right-wing article of faith via Fox News, talk radio, and the many we-hate-liberals books that roll off the conservative presses. Every step of the way, Romney had made a show of placating these factions.
As a result of this insistent fanati-cism, Republicans—the right-wing base and the tremulous politicians who live in fear of it—have minimized their own chances in a number of states, representing a large chunk of electoral votes, where the party was once dominant at the…
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