Will Mitt Triangulate?

The manuevering between the two parties on student loan interest rates is interesting, but is there a feeling of deju vu about it? Greg Sargent thinks so:

Is the battle over student loans shaping up as a rerun of the payroll tax cut fight, which by all accounts badly damaged the GOP?

Consider the parallels. Just as in the payroll tax cut battle, there’s a looming deadline: On July 1st, interest rates on federally funded student loans is set to double. Barack Obama and Democrats, confident that the politics are on their side, are signaling that they intend to remain on offense on the issue.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney and other Republican leaders, apparently sensing that this a losing issue for them, have voiced varying degrees of support for extending the low rates. And just as in the payroll tax fight, they insist their only issue is about how to pay for the extension. Yet they won’t say what spending cuts they would favor to offset it.

Meanwhile, House conservatives — just as during the payroll battle — are beginning to signal that they oppose the extension, period, full stop.

Greg goes on to quote Rep. Todd Akin of MO, who is in one of those look-at-me-I’m-the-craziest GOP primaries for a Senate nomination, as saying the involvement of the federal government in student loans, regardless of the interest rates, is a symptom of America’s “stage three cancer of socialism.”

If Greg is right about the basic dynamics, we could see an interesting test of two very basic questions about how the general election will play out: (1) how interested are House Republicans in making life easier for their presidential nominee, and (2) is it possible Mitt Romney will “triangulate” against them if they don’t cooperate? This latter possibility must be tempting to Team Mitt. After all, there are three basic ways to moderate one’s image: Change your positions or messages (i.e., get out the “Etch-a-Sketch”), contrast yourself with the supposed extremism of your opponent (Republicans have about reached the point of diminishing returns on that theme), or contrast yourself with your least popular allies. It’s not like Romney would have to “flip-flop” to embrace a position on student loans that probably polls at about 80%; he just has to refuse to go along with the loonier impulses of House Republicans, some of whom are from districts so safe they could come out for moving the Capitol to the Rockies and renaming it Galt’s Gulch without fear of defeat.

Romney’s relationship with the more militant elements of the conservative movement has always been, well, complicated. He was their default-drive candidate in 2008, their purported enemy in this year’s primaries, and now their “titular leader.” Will they do him the service of scaring swing voters by growling at the cameras and then let him play the lion-taming “moderate?” We may soon see.

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.