Mitt Romney has never been particularly known for originality, but last week he came up with a stellar description calling himself a "severe conservative." Delivered at the conservative political action committee, or CPAC, he once again was trying to convince the faithful that he truly embraced right-wing stances. He won the straw poll with 38 percent, but he left the 62 percent ever-ready to hold him to a standard of purity.
The CPAC represents not so much the movement, but the plutocrats of the GOP. Grover Norquist, the staunch advocate of the let 'em eat tax cut school, was given a rousing reception. The family values wing and the national security group were left behind - far behind this crowd's material concerns. It was all about money - their money - very few other interests were addressed. So Romney's use of "severe" was a play off of George W. Bush's "compassionate" conservatism.
Now Romney is very bright, and seems to have used the term to punctuate that he is no Massachusetts moderate and sure as the day was not prone to Bush-style sentimentalism. He was harsh by golly - give the poor no quarter and recognize the inviolate supremacy of property in our republic. For all the world, Romney seemed to be subconsciously dialing in a form of parody. Had they asked for more, he may have even endorsed the poor-law and debtors' prison.
His remarks, awkward as they are, only reflect the narrowing of the Republican debate. Norquist as much as said that all the GOP needed to do was find a candidate who would simply sign the bills a right-wing Congress sent the chief executive. Just shut up, take orders and let Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor dictate policy. Give old Grover credit; he knows his business - but it is not exactly the kind of message the public will buy.
But by being flinty, they have placed Romney in a box. The plutocrats force him onto a no tax pledge and the moral majority types place him in a narrow position on birth control. Instead of using his Massachusetts experience to win over suburban women and good government independents, he is forced to play exclusively to the base. David Axelrod is having his work done for him, without lifting a hand or spending a dime. Romney is an Edmund Burke conservative, but he is not an Ayn Randist or populist right-winger although he is beginning to sound like one. The price of the nomination is getting perilously close to being prohibitive.
And the tests keep coming on issues like health care, unemployment and the deficit. Romney is forced to commit on issues too early and too often. It is a bit like former South Carolina Sen. Olin Johnston, who was befuddled as to why he could not get on key committees only to be told by an aide to Lyndon Johnson, "Well, senator, they're a little concerned about how you'd be on oil."
Johnston answered, "Awright, then, you go tell Lyndon and Bob (Robert Kerr of Oklahoma), I'll vote for their natural gas bill, anything else oil wants, short of hanging all the poor folks. Hell, if it'll do any good, I'll comb my hair with crude oil."
Poor Mitt seems like he will have to work himself in as an ideological crude admixture in order to be nominated.
Good that Republicans did not follow that formula in 2000. George W. Bush improved his numbers among women and Hispanics and won - barely. Smartly, conservatives did not place him in a straitjacket politically and gave him flexibility. Give Bush credit, he opened the door for Republican expansion. The current crowd seems satisfied to narrow voters' options. Romney has a knotty problem, but if he is going to defeat President Barack Obama, he will have to stare down GOP extremists rather than "severely" embrace them.