How Mitt Romney Can Be Both a Flip-Flopper and an Extremist

Obama will attack Romney on two seemingly contradictory levels .

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My friend Ramesh Ponnuru makes the case that former Gov. Mitt Romney's history of flip-flops might not be the general-election liability that many conservatives think it will be.

As Ramesh sees it, the Obama reelection campaign has, broadly speaking, two different attacks they can mount against Romney. The first is that he's a flip-flopper. The second is that he's an extremist who "yearns to dismantle environmental protections, slash Medicare and Social Security, ban abortion, and do the bidding of big business."

Moreover, Ramesh argues that Obama's political team will have to choose one of these attacks to the exclusion of the other:

Obama can't get both of these messages across simultaneously. He can't make voters fear Romney's positions while also telling them he is liable to change them whenever they prove unpopular. So he is going to have to choose which attack to make central to his campaign.

[See a slide show of 10 issues driving Obama's re-election campaign.]

I'm not so sure.

I think Ramesh is overestimating the degree to which the voting public appreciates nuance. The average voter isn't as politically aware as he is. Those of us who marinate in this stuff have developed an inbuilt response to Romney's flip-floppery: which is that Romney is, in his heart, a moderate Northeastern neo-Rockefellerian Republican who's trying to persuade the base that he's more conservative than his record suggests.

In other words, he flip-flops precisely because he's not an extremist.

[See the 10 ways Romney differs from Perry on economics]

But let's imagine John Q. Voter, who has no deep knowledge of Romney. He might have heard his name by now, but knows little about him. Along comes President Obama, who tells Mr. Voter that you should fear Romney. Why? Because he'll do or say anything to get elected. And for the last four years, Romney has sold his soul to the Republican party, which holds extreme positions on the issues you care about most.

Paul Waldman of the American Prospect writes:

One can presume that somewhere underneath all that calculation there are firmly held beliefs, but what they are is not all that important. The Mitt Romney who is president, just like the Mitt Romney we see today, will act according to the incentives with which he is presented and what he fears. The result will be a presidency reflecting today's Republican Party, which is to say an extremely conservative one.

I'm not saying the twinning of the flip-flop/extremist attacks will prove a slam dunk against Romney.

I'm just saying there's no reason to believe that Obama won't try to walk and chew gum.

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