ROMNEY: IN THE STARS, LOOKING AT THE GUTTER
I've often wondered what would have happened if John McCain had ignored his advisors and gone with Joe Lieberman as his running mate. I know, I know -- you're having a hard time suppressing your gag reflex as a result of that sentence, but, alas, I'm not sure America would have felt the same way. People across the spectrum were sick of the Iraq War, but they'd also had Friedmanesque centrism propaganda pounded into them for years (and Barack Obama was reinforcing that propaganda), so the ticket might have seemed like the precise cure for America's disease, at least to a lot of naive people who believe everything they read. I'm not sure McCain could have done worse with Joe as his running mate, and he might have done better -- and most of the base probably would have come home.
So I'm looking at Mitt Romney right now and I'm thinking he's on the verge of breaking from the pack and could theoretically tack to the center relatively soon, and, really, if you look at the polls, he wouldn't have all that much ground to make up if he did it successfully. But I don't think he's going to do it successfully.
Let's look at the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll:
... a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that the combative and heavily scrutinized primary season so far has damaged the party and its candidates.
... perhaps most significantly, the GOP primary process has taken a toll on the Republican presidential candidates, including front-runner Mitt Romney....
In January's NBC/WSJ poll, Romney's favorable/unfavorable rating stood at 31 percent to 36 percent among all respondents (and 22/42 percent among independents).
But in this latest survey, it's now 28 percent favorable and 39 percent unfavorable (and 22/38 percent among independents).
... In a hypothetical general-election contest, [President Obama] leads Romney by six points, 50 to 44 percent, winning independents (46-39 percent), women (55-37 percent) and those in the Midwest (52-42 percent)....
See, Obama's lead is still a mere 6 points -- and if the primary campaign is making Romney look worse in voters' eyes, you'd think the end of the primary campaign will make him look better.
In fact, he could break out by distinguishing himself from the clownish zealots and culture warriors he's been running against, and from other clowns on the right -- people like, oh, say, Rush Limbaugh. The press would love him for it. All would be forgiven. We'd be told that, after a season of ugly ideological squabbles, a nominee had emerged who really, really isn't like those horrible people -- thank goodness! Oh, and thankfully he's also not like that strident liberal ideologue Barack Obama.
But I don't think Romney's going to do that. He's even more of a coward than John McCain. Admittedly, he has some reason to fear that a zero-budget far-right party could go viral and hurt him in key states in a Naderesque way, and he certainly has reason to fear diminished enthusiasm from the base -- but I think these folks hate Obama so much that they'll turn out for the GOP no matter what. But Romney will keep trying to please them, out of his usual fear and timidity, and he'll keep screwing it up, while being enough of a right-wing culture warrior (in addition to being a Thurston Howell III clone) to continue alienating the center as well.
He needs to seem like someone distinguishable from Santorum and Gingrich (and Perry and Bachmann and Cain), but he's not going to try hard enough. He needs not to pick a Palin as a running mate, but he'll probably pick someone who's ideologically indistinguishable, like Bob McDonnell. He needs to seem different from people like Rush Limbaugh, but he's too timid to go Sister Souljah on Rush, and he bet he'll stay that way through the fall, out of a desperate wish to keep pleasing the base. (I predict he'll be on Limbaugh's show kissing his ring by fall, even if the damage to Limbaugh from this past week never really subsides.)
Romney could win. But I don't think he'll do what it would take to win.
(X-posted at Booman Tribune.)