The professionals are consigning the Republican presidential nomination to Mitt Romney more than a month before the first Iowan casts a vote. Ross Douthat, the New York Times' resident Republican oracle, said there was no point in any further speculation. It's over.
When no one approaches 30 percent among even Republican voters in any poll and Romney's negatives run high, that seems a little rash, but Douthat is probably right. When opportunists like Tim Griffin jump on board a campaign that is hardly visible in Arkansas, it is a good sign. In Griffin's case, it merely means that Karl Rove, the modern Rasputin and Griffin's old mentor, has settled on Romney as the GOP's likely winner, but Douthat needs no more evidence than that.
Romney has been in the wilderness a long time, but the Republican Party is finally safe for a chameleon — and the biggest flip-flopper in history at that. He owes it, ironically, to the rise of extremism and the congressional Republican leadership's abdication to the bomb throwers who despise Romney. That is not a non sequitur, but more about it in a moment.
First, Romney the other day completed a hat trick on climate change, the last of the burning issues of the day on which he has taken both sides. As recently as five years ago, Al Gore was not a stronger advocate of drastic steps to lower carbon emissions than Mitt Romney, then the governor of Massachusetts. Romney joined demonstrators outside a coal-fired plant in 2003 to show his support for emissions caps. "I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant, that plant kills people," he said.
He began to change in his 2008 presidential race and this year he reversed direction completely. As late as June, he was still saying that human activity was causing climate change and the country needed to reduce carbon emissions. But last week, at a forum put on, naturally, by one of the largest coal-mining companies, he had no idea whether warming was caused by human activity and he opposed spending money to reduce carbon emissions.
Everyone knows his flip-flop on health care. He instituted the first universal health care system by installing in Massachusetts the old Nixon-Ford health plan, based on mandatory insurance purchases. He said it could be a model for the country. Now he promises to try to repeal the national system that was modeled after his own.
His most astounding backflip was on abortion. When he ran for the Senate against Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, he declared: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. ... I believe that Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years and we should sustain and support it." He said he would never waver on abortion. As governor of Massachusetts he supported state funding of abortions for poor women and approved of abortion pills, including RU-486. Pro-choice groups endorsed him. Now he favors amending the U.S. Constitution to outlaw all forms of abortion in all situations.
As a candidate for the Senate in 1994 and for governor in 2002 he championed the rights of gays and lesbians, including civil unions and the extension of marital benefits to gay couples. He promised to be a more effective champion of gay rights than Ted Kennedy.
He was for gun control before he was against it. As governor he favored a ban on assault weapons and the Brady Bill, which required a waiting period to buy handguns. Now he's solidly with the National Rifle Association.
As governor he raised $500 million in corporate taxes and fees to shore up the budget. Now he wants to cut corporate taxes and promises never to raise them.
He once was a little soft on immigrants, grieving about making it hard for the children of illegal aliens to go to college by denying them in-state tuition. Now he's tougher than all the others.
So in a season when the party seems to demand total purity the most transparent weathervane in history is going to be the nominee and perhaps the president. How does that happen?
To the leaders of the party, to the men who bankroll it and to a large extent the rank-and-file Republican voters, character is not the decisive factor but who can get elected. The extremists can't.
There are, in fact, certain advantages to having weak character. Old-line Republicans, who are still the majority in the party, and independents may not admire Romney — few could — but they don't fear him. As president they know he would govern by accommodation as he always did. No one believes that he would stick to any of the stands he has taken the past year.
People may have loathed and distrusted Richard Nixon, but they didn't fear him. He talked as conservative as they come but left a record as progressive as Jimmy Carter's, Bill Clinton's or Barack Obama's. As for the Tea Party, they can't bolt for a third party next summer. Romney, after all, is with them on everything.