Elections are won in the center. At least that’s what Bill Clinton taught me. After the pain of the Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis defeats, Clinton was determined to lead his party back to the middle—and to the White House. So he called for “an end to welfare as we know it,” proposed adding 100,000 cops to our streets, and publicly remonstrated Sister Souljah for suggesting that perhaps it would be OK if black people killed white people during the L.A. riots of 1992.
Challenging the established orthodoxy was gutsy. Challenging it and winning the Democratic nomination was historic. But Clinton understood that unless he broke with what he called “the brain-dead politics of both parties,” the nomination itself was a worthless prize.
Why doesn’t Mitt Romney understand that? Why has he abandoned his longstanding moderation and embraced the furthest fringe of the right wing? It certainly hasn’t endeared him to the right. His disapproval among Republicans has soared 13 points in the latest CNN/Opinion Research poll. And it has disgusted independents, pushing Romney’s negatives to 53 percent in the same poll.
It takes a remarkable blend of phoniness and fecklessness to simultaneously alienate independents and Republicans. But it didn’t have to be this way. Romney could have run on the moderate record he built in Massachusetts. He could have said something like this:
“I want to say something important to my fellow pro-life Republicans. If we are to limit the tragic number of abortions in this country, we are going to have to recognize that contraception prevents abortion. Contraception works. It protects women’s health, saves money, and decreases the number of abortions. I will fully fund Title X, which funds contraception. It was passed with the support of a Republican congressman named George H.W. Bush, signed into law by a Republican president, and will be honored and protected by a Romney administration.
“I want to say something important to the hunters in this audience. I will never allow anyone to take away the shotguns and rifles you use to hunt. But I will proudly stand with one NRA member who strongly supported the Brady Bill—and oppose any effort to weaken the gun-safety laws our police need. That NRA member’s name was Ronald Reagan.
“And I want to say something important to all of us in this room who have been blessed by the American Dream. No one wants to pay more in taxes. Lord knows I don’t—and I’m sure you don’t, either. But as governor of Massachusetts I balanced four budgets in a row. I did it in part by closing loopholes, requiring corporations to pay hundreds of millions in additional taxes. That doesn’t make me anti-business; it just makes me pro-reality.
“Finally, I want to say something to those who are demonizing our gay sons and lesbian daughters: I won’t play that game. My state of Massachusetts has gay -marriage—and while I support civil unions rather than marriage, the honest truth is gay marriage has not hurt Massachusetts. Indeed, Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate of all 50 states.
“I promise you this, my fellow Republicans: I will take the fight to Barack Obama. I will fight him on spending. I will fight him on job creation. I will fight him on the debt and the deficit. And I will fight him on energy policy, education policy, and environmental policy. But I will fight all those fights—and I will win all those fights—from the sensible center. If you are looking for the most radical Republican, the most extreme Republican, the most divisive and destructive Republican, count me out. That path leads to defeat. And the last thing our party can afford is to lose.”
OK, that’s a pipe dream. The tragedy is, when I drafted the “Sister Souljah” speech for then–governor Clinton, I knew I was writing words he actually meant. Who knows what Mitt Romney actually believes in, except advancing Mitt Romney?
But the fault does not lie merely with Mitt. Jon Huntsman tried the path of moderation—he even had the courage to say the science of global warming is real and we should act to limit the pollution that’s killing our planet. How did that work out for him? Huntsman was the only candidate who never led the pack in any poll, any time, anywhere.
The Republicans of today are not like the Democrats of 20 years ago. They don’t want to appeal to the vital center. They want to appeal to the visceral right. They want radicalism, not reason. They want extremism, not moderation. They want a bomb thrower, not a bridge builder. What they’re likely to get is a loser, not a winner.