Paul Begala: Mitt Romney Lunges in the Wrong Direction

Mitt Romney
Charles Ommanney for Newsweek

Unlike some of my right-wing friends, I actually believe in evolution. The shorthand for Darwin’s Law is not “Only the Strong Survive,” as a moronic coach said to me in seventh grade in Sugar Land, Texas. If it were, we’d be ruled by T. rex. Instead, human beings—who are slow, small, weak, and tasty—rule the world. Why? Because Darwin’s theory predicts the survival of the “fittest,” by which he meant the most adaptable. And Homo sapiens is incredibly adaptable.

I take this detour into Bio 101 to make a political point about Mitt RomneyPoliticus americanus—who obviously believes in evolution. His adaptation has been remarkable. First he was a liberal: he voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas for president, spoke emotionally of a relative who died from an illegal abortion, and vowed to be more pro-gay-rights than Teddy Kennedy. Then he was a moderate: as Massachusetts governor he signed Romney-care, which included a health-insurance mandate—the moderate alternative to nationalized health care. Now Mittbot 3.0 is a conservative: he hammered Rick Perry from the xenophobic right, excoriating the Texas governor for allowing the children of undocumented workers to be educated at in-state tuition rates, and embracing Paul Ryan’s House GOP budget, which even The Wall Street Journal said would “essentially end Medicare.”

That, friends, is what I call adaptable. Romney is a political shape-shifter who will renege on any promise, abandon any pledge, betray any principle to please his audience. You get the sense that if Mitt were running in a primary where the key voting bloc were cannibals, he’d promise them missionaries.

But what if Romney has evolved in the wrong direction? What if all his desperate moves to the right are in vain?

The voters who will decide the 2012 election do not live on a left-right spectrum. (To be sure, hard-core Republicans do, but the GOP base will not pick the next president.) Instead, the world of moderate, independent swing voters lives on an up-down spectrum, moving between deference to elites and expressions of populist anger. And this is an angry moment, which is why smart politicians are moving not from left to right but from elitist to populist.

The contrast with Barack Obama is instructive. As Romney has moved further to the right, Obama has moved down. In his 2009 address to a joint session of Congress, in which he sold his economic plan, Obama used the phrase “middle class” only once—and that was in the context of talking about our history, not our present predicament. But in his Kansas speech late last year, he used the term no fewer than 26 times. Where Obama 2009 seemed to avoid discussion of inequality, Obama 2012 is self-consciously committed to the middle class. The professor has become the populist; the Harvard Law Review editor has morphed back into the community organizer. That’s evolution I can believe in.

Romney, on the other hand, has adapted in all the wrong ways.

While he has moved to the hard right on everything from abortion to immigration, he remains the quint-essential economic elitist. Even Rick Perry calls him a “vulture capitalist,” and Newt Gingrich describes Romney’s business career as “rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company.” Neither Perry nor Gingrich is likely to defeat Romney. But their attacks point the way to a general-election strategy for Democrats: paint Romney as Gordon Gekko, an entitled princeling who uses his vast wealth and power to help his wealthy friends and hammer the middle class.

The best ammo comes not from Gingrich or Perry, nor from progressive think tanks or liberal bloggers, but rather from Romney himself.

Consider these bons mots—and how they’re going to look in a general-election campaign designed to paint Romney as out of touch and downright hostile to the middle class:

“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom.” “Corporations are people, my friend.” “I’m not looking to put money in people’s pockets.” “There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.” “I’ll tell you what: ten thousand bucks? Ten-thousand-dollar bet?”

It may well be that the most ideologically elastic of men loses because he is too rigidly, inflexibly elitist to evolve to meet the new populist mood. What Romney needs isn’t fewer flip-flops. It’s more of them—but toward the middle that matters: the middle class.

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