The Nasty-As-He-Wants-To-Be Factor

In all the endless discussion of Mitt Romney’s courtship of the conservative movement, it’s never much occurred to me that his “electability” appeal to GOP voters depends on conveying the general sense that he’ll do anything to win. But that’s the interesting point buried in a long Michael Barbaro/Jeremy Peters article on Mitt’s abiding nastiness as a candidate. Check this out:

The Romney campaign’s shortcomings have been on vivid display in recent weeks, from verbal stumbles to a failure to stir the passions of the Republican base.

But even his battered rivals acknowledge that Mr. Romney is proving unusually adept at defining, diminishing and disqualifying a serial cast of challengers through relentless attacks.

His campaign has deployed every tactic in the negative-campaign playbook. It has issued Twitter messages poking fun at Mr. Gingrich’s penchant for rhetorical excess (with the hashtag #grandiosenewt). It created digital slogans and a letterhead disparaging Mr. Santorum’s long career in government (“Rick Went to Washington,” they read, “and he never came back”). It created dozens of Web videos denigrating President Obama’s economic leadership (“Obama isn’t working”). And it benefited from the advertising onslaught unleashed against Mr. Romney’s rivals by a “super PAC” backing him.

As successful as the strategy has been, though, it has raised questions about Mr. Romney’s role in turning the primary process into something akin to a civil war, even as it has demonstrated a ferocious, whatever-it-takes style that could hearten Republicans if Mr. Romney ends up in a general election matchup against Mr. Obama (emphasis added)

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If that’s true, then Romney’s efforts to pretend he’s the “true conservative” in the campaign have been something of a waste of time. All he really needs to do is to prove he has absolutely no conscience or inhibitions about negative campaigning. Because that’s what “base” activists want more than anything else, even more than victory: a holy war against Barack Obama to articulate their visceral hatred of the incumbent, with which they hope to infect persuadable voters. Mitt’s well on his way to passing that most crucial test.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.