Last week resolved the remaining questions about which Republicans are running for president. Chris Christie, the outspoken governor of New Jersey, and Sarah Palin, the misspoken conservative celebrity, will not. The field is set and pointed towards a surprising outcome. In the most conservative moment in the US in decades, a party dominated by Tea Party radicalism is on course to nominate the mild and moderate Mitt Romney.
In the interminable debates that punctuate the primaries, Mr Romney stands aloft from a quarrelling chorus of patriotic anarchists: Rick Perry, the gallows-loving governor of Texas; Ron Paul, the ascetic libertarian; Herman Cain, an African-American pizza magnate; Rick Santorum, who appeals to the religious right; and Michele Bachmann, who appeals to late-night talk-show hosts in search of material. Newt Gingrich, abandoned by his own staff, remains irrelevantly in the race. So too does Jon Huntsman, who has great appeal, but not to Republican voters. These seven dwarves run against Mr Romney while he runs against Barack Obama.
There is sure to be more drama before it is settled, if only because the media cannot tolerate a stagnant race. It is not certain that southern Baptists will get behind a Mormon. But the Republican nomination is now Mr Romney’s to lose, and there is no reason why he should.
To the disappointment of radical conservatives and Obama liberals, the former Massachusetts governor is sane, intelligent and reasonable. Unlike some of his rivals, he does not deny the facts of climate change or evolution. He is not proposing vast tax cuts or reductions in social spending. His politics express the world view of a successful businessman who became the technocratic governor of America’s most liberal state.
When he ran in 2008, Mr Romney swung too far and too fast from his Massachusetts persona, and came across as pandering and incoherent. This time, he has given up being anyone’s first choice and striven to become everyone’s second. His strategy has been to make himself tolerable to the Tea Party, while developing positions with an eye toward the general election.
Mr Romney made this approach clear in May when he declined to disown the universal healthcare plan he championed in Massachusetts. This plan, based on a requirement that individuals buy insurance with the help of a subsidy, is essentially the same as Mr Obama’s, done at the state level. Arguing that Obamacare is procedurally rather than substantively wrong is tricky, but disowning his chief accomplishment would have been disastrous.
In other areas such as abortion and immigration, Mr Romney has simply reversed his prior positions. He can do this because he is, like Mr Obama, a pragmatist. One can cast this as insincerity or lack of principle, but in truth it is simply the problem-solving mindset of the management consultant and corporate turnround artist Mr Romney was before he entered politics. Faced with a new competitive challenge or evolving consumer preferences, the shrewd businessman swiftly adapts.
In moving from the liberal Massachusetts market to the ultraconservative Republican primary one, Mr Romney faced a daunting challenge in rebranding. Being pro-choice on abortion, supportive of gay rights, lenient on immigration and concerned about climate change helped him gain market share a decade ago. In the 2008 presidential race, he replaced those positions too precipitately with a new product line, spawning a consumer backlash. In 2012, he is positioning himself between the Romney of 2002 and the Romney of 2008.
This managerial malleability alarms Tea Partiers, but should be a relief to everyone else. Mr Romney is not a radical and will not govern from the far right, unless the country has gone there first. When the time comes for him to behave responsibly, he will have less trouble in accepting the necessity of higher taxes. For those interested in the economic choices the next president will face, Mr Romney’s non-ideological nature is a major plus.
The greatest risk he faces in the primaries and as a potential nominee is becoming a Republican John Kerry. He does not suffer from Mr Kerry’s pomposity or tin ear, but courts mockery by sounding too much like the product of focus-group testing. He lacks humour and spontaneity. Few detest him, but no one outside of his equally flawless family can be said to love him.
Mr Obama’s team has to choose whether to depict him as an extremist in mufti or a flip-flopper, which was how the 2004 Bush campaign devastatingly defined Mr Kerry. The problem with the first line is that it is not true. The problem with the second is it may be Mr Romney’s greatest advantage.
The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of ‘The Bush Tragedy’