Perhaps for an older generation of Republicans, the focus on the presidential nomination as an ideological exercise is a bit bizarre. Since 1968, GOP contests have centered around the principles of limited government, strong defense and a loosely construed view toward order and traditional values. No major divisions in the party have been evident since San Francisco in 1964. Even the hotly contested nomination battle between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford ended amicably in 1976.
Yet in 2012, the emphasis on who is the purest conservative has been on display. Mitt Romney has been criticized for being a "liberal" or "moderate" governor of Massachusetts by his more right-leaning critics. But these are terms used by conservative who interpret any idea that does not mesh with their own as somehow leftish. Romney may be a moderate conservative but he surely is not lefty. Because he sought practical solutions to complex questions does not make him a liberal or even, perish the thought, a progressive.
By the rigidity of the current tea party formulations, Reagan was no conservative. He raised fees, assented to a compromise on Social Security and raised a tariff or two. But Reagan was a conservative, he simply was no ideologue. Milton Friedman, the nobel laureate and by any measure a conservative, correctly observed, "You want a principled man which Reagan is. But he is not a rigidly principled man which you don't want." Romney could easily be placed in this category.
The difference between Reagan and Romney was that Mitt expressed his nuanced opinions in public. Reagan stayed on message and cut the deal in private. He served up red meat with a wink and a smile. So Reagan very rarely was scored for inconsistency because he never emphasized his compromises. Romney on the other hand sees no apparent inconsistency in his health care initiatives or his switches. His pragmatism is seen more a as opportunism because, unlike Reagan, he is perceived as having no core beliefs.
However this hardly makes Romney a Massachusetts liberal. Clumsy maybe, but not a political heretic. Politicians should not be condemned for playing the best available hand. In 2002, Romney was concerned with soaring health cost and as a good businessman wanted to stop the bleeding. Local hospitals were absorbing the bill for the indigent and needed a way out of their dilemma. For Romney, it was a problem to be solved, not an idea to be flipped around to no purpose.
Another criticism of Romney is that he does not live in a world that would allow empathy for the average man. But who does in the privileged realm of presidential candidates? Can a political figure truly "feel the pain" of a collective population? One would seriously doubt it and to particularly select Romney as an example of the 1 percent is strange. He is old school, not particularly happy to wear his heart on his sleeve. Taking care of a wife with a debilitating disease, as Romney does, would qualify as living in the real world of disappointment and sorrow. To his credit, he is quiet and discreet, never complains, never explains.
And what is usually never focused on is that neither Romney nor his detractors can govern as they campaigned. Foolish consistency is a disqualification for office and lofty ideological notions incorrectly applied are disastrous. To be president is not to adhere to a foolish checklist of sentiments. And of course, changing according to evidence is only a sign of intelligence. As Friedman observed it is not good to be "rigidly principled."
But Romney, if he is to win, will ultimately have to come to terms with the fact that presidential candidates have to have some sense of the dramatic. Reagan in South Carolina in 1980 said, "We Republicans have to show people we're not the party of big business and the country club set. We're the party of Main Street, the small town, the city neighborhood, the shopkeeper, the farmer, the cop on the beat, the blue collar and the white collar worker." Sometime it pays to put a little English on the ball.