A misguided appeal for a moderate Mitt

Nicholas Kristof presents an argument today that I’ve heard before, but which I struggle to understand. As the NYT columnist sees it, Mitt Romney was a “moderate and pragmatic governor,” who, his metamorphoses notwithstanding, may flip “back to his old self” in 2013.

The reassuring thing about Mitt Romney is that for most of his life he probably wouldn’t have voted for today’s Mitt Romney. […]

If we do see, as I expect we will, a reversion in the direction of the Massachusetts Romney, that’s a flip we should celebrate. Until the Republican primaries sucked him into its vortex, he was a pragmatist and policy wonk rather similar to Bill Clinton and President Obama but more conservative. (Clinton described Romney to me as having done “a very good job” in Massachusetts.) Romney was much closer to George H.W. Bush than to George W. Bush.

Kristof says we should “expect” this current version of Romney to revert back to a previous version. I think this is wildly misguided.

The premise here is that the Romney we see running for president is a ridiculous phony. Sure, he’s saying reckless right-wing things, he’s making irresponsible right-wing promises, and he’s completely rejected any sensible positions he once held, but it’s just an act to get elected. Voters should simply pay no attention to what Romney is saying, doing, proposing, and promising, since none this is sincere anyway.

This isn’t a criticism levied by Romney’s detractors; this is a defense offered by Romney’s tacit supporters.

It’s also incoherent.

To accept the premise of the argument, a voter would have to believe that every word out of Romney’s mouth for the last five years — about his policy agenda, worldview, and priorities — has been a deliberate scam. As part of an elaborate scheme to mislead the American public, Romney has chosen to become a closeted moderate. The lie will end and the centrist will reemerge just as soon as the electorate has put the presidency in his hands.

What those making this argument are actually proposing is an incredible gamble with the nation’s future. Sure, Romney says he’ll take a far-right approach to everything from the economy to entitlements, foreign policy to the judiciary, but perhaps we’re witnessing a half-decade-long ruse and everything will turn out fine.

That’s quite a risk with so much on the line.

Let me give Jonathan Bernstein’s piece in the new print issue another plug. The point of the article is important: what candidates say they’ll do is generally what they will do if elected.

Someone might want to send a copy to Nicholas Kristof.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.