The General Election As A Continuing Primary

The motives for the drumbeat on the Right demanding that Mitt Romney get “more specific,” which shows steady signs of getting louder, aren’t necessarily that easy to divine. There are without a doubt many conservatives who truly believe this is a “center-right country” looking for a sharply more conservative direction; that swing voters are mostly conservatives; and/or that the margin between victory or defeat for the GOP will come from the relative temperature level of “the base.” In their endless diatribes on the anger of “the people” towards Obama and “socialism” and “elites” and all that, many have probably bought their own spin. And there is obviously some mass base out their for the Palin/Breitbart proposition that the only way conservatives can conceivably lose any election is by displaying insufficient hatred of the opposition, and an insufficient zest for projecting conspiracy theories and outright fabrications into the overheated air.

But even more sophisticated conservatives (e.g., the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal) who probably don’t think maximum polarization is the key to the political kingdom seem to be talking the same way. At Ten Miles Square, Jonathan Bernstein suggests they know Mitt’s vagueness is smart politically, but want him to become specific “because specific commitments will tend to constrain him once he takes office.” Earlier today I said something very similar in guessing that the Journal is willing to risk defeat in order to “make sure the mortgage to Mitt’s soul stays in the right hands.”

What we may be witnessing is a truly rare phenomenon: a general election where one party’s candidate is so manifestly without trust among key elements of his own “base” that they are demanding he continue to campaign as though the primaries are still going on. Check out this Hugh Hewitt post from today about what Romney needs to do right now on the health care issue:

Governor Romney needs to huddle with Speaker John Boehner and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and come up with a strategy that combats this suspicion, which is deeply held and far wider than most GOP insiders want to admit. That suspicion is going to hobble turnout and it is already a dead weight on enthusiasm and contributions.

They need a very well publicized joint appearance at which they put out a firm pledge of repeal that is accompanied by a detailed plan and a timeline, one that gets into the “tall weeds.” They all need to resist the temptation to argue that the public isn’t interested in the “tall weeds.” The public is very interested in just that set of weeds, and reacts extremely negatively to vagueness and obfuscation because it smacks of condescension. “Reconciliation,” which is the process by which repeal of Obamacare will be accomplished, is a lot less complicated than the average business of running a business, and it is aggravating in the extreme to be treated like children and told that the details are too obscure to be trotted out. Social media has empowered the public, allowing very smart people to translate Congress-speak into plain language, and the lack of detail gets translated into charges of deceit even when those charges aren’t deserved.

Now even Hugh Hewitt isn’t crazy enough to think that “the public,” 41% of whom are not even aware the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, is demanding a Romney campaign that provides a step-by-step account of how and when the Supreme Court’s work will be overturned. This is all about what conservative activists want because they did not get the assurances they wanted from their nominee during the primary season, in no small part thanks to their crappy field of candidates, and also, of course, as a reflection of Mitt’s richly earned reputation for lying.

So Romney is going to have to spend his time between now and election day not only trying to beat Barack Obama, but proving himself over and over again to “the base,” running a primary as well as a general election campaign. If I wasn’t so aware of how he’s put himself into this situation throughout a career of serial pandering to anyone he needed to fulfill his ambitions, I’d almost feel sorry for him.

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.