If you want to understand the recent, present, and probably future direction of the conservative movement and its wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican Party, it’s important to understand how thoroughly and rapidly it has engineered a revolution in the GOP, now that dissent from The Truth is ill-tolerated. A useful way to get a grip on this phenomenon is, of course, to look at Mitt Romney’s efforts to accommodate himself to the ever-changing zeitgeist. Sometimes you get the impression that Romney was this solid moderate Republican the day before yesterday, and only became “severely conservative” in this cycle. But as Steve Kornacki reminds us today at Salon, Mitt started repositioning himself to the right a long time ago–just not fast and far enough:

Romney began making moves toward a White House run nearly a decade ago, shifting away from his moderate Massachusetts roots and positioning himself to meet the national GOP’s various ideological tests. The Massachusetts healthcare law was to play a key role in this self-reinvention. It would give Romney a major bipartisan gubernatorial achievement, burnish his credentials as a forward-looking leader (and not just a simple pandered), and give him a huge general election asset – a universal coverage law that he could use to deflate the inevitable Democratic attacks about his lack of compassion and to stir hope among voters that he knew how to accomplish Big Things.

So Romneycare was not a legacy of RINO moderate heresy (you have to look back at the things he said during his 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy to find a lot of items that send conservatives completely over the wall), but a token of then-prevailing conservative orthodoxy. For two interlocking reasons–the decision by conservatives that any efforts to achieve universal health coverage were inherently “socialistic,” and the strategic decision to oppose everything proposed by Barack Obama as a step down the road to totalitarianism–Romney’s positioning turned out to be wrong. It’s worth remembering that his most serious “true conservative” rivals for the nomination, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, made similar mistakes.

In Romney’s case, however, this mispositioning has been especially fateful because it knocked the props from beneath his slender record of accomplishment, as Kornacki notes:

When Obama embraced RomneyCare and the GOP embraced reflexive opposition, it left Rommney with nothing to say.

And that’s where he is today, alternating between a failing “economic referendum on Obama” message and serial broken promises to lay out a positive agenda that isn’t the Ryan Budget with a side dish of Christian Right cultural extremism. If there was a Bain Capital for politicians, it would probably tell Mitt he needs to blow it all up and start over.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.