There are times when I feel a twinge of sympathy for former Gov. Mitt Romney. Really and truly. The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Mitt in the current ideological climate—with its highly-charged suspicions of both "socialism" and conspicuous wealth—forces him to tack left and right in ways that leave him pitifully exposed.
His calculated moves toward the right sometime in the mid-2000s, on key issues like abortion, gay rights, and immigration, are well-known and justly scrutinized.
Less noticed—but no less calculated—have been his efforts to hew to the center.
I'm thinking, first, of Romney's proposal to eliminate capital gains taxes only for married couples making under $200,000 and singles making less than $100,000. The cap at those income levels is head-scratchingly pointless, as the vast majority who benefit from low capital gains tax rates make well over $200,000.
Romney's official rationale for limited capital gains tax relief is that "We need to spend our precious tax dollars on the middle class."
That sounds nice and centrist-y, but the more likely reason became clear when Romney finally released his tax returns: If he proposed eliminating taxes on capital gains altogether—as former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul and Gov. Rick Perry have proposed—then Romney would be forced to defend the prospect of paying even less than his already low rate of 13.9 percent.
"Under that plan"—meaning Gingrich's—"I'd have paid no taxes in the last two years," Romney said, in one of his sharpest lines in the debate in Tampa last month.
Romney is similarly lukewarm, from the libertarian economic perspective, on the issue of the minimum wage. As in 2008, Romney favors automatic increases to keep pace with inflation. The right uniformly hates this idea—they think it will actually eliminate entry-level jobs and hurt the very people it's trying to help.
As with his suspicious-seeming lurches toward the right to appease the social conservative base, Romney trims toward the center on sensitive economic issues to limit the appearance of rank plutocracy.
Steve Forbes tells Yahoo News: "It goes to show he's still very defensive about his own wealth. All it does is give the base another reason to be unenthusiastic about him."
At National Review Online, Andrew C. McCarthy likewise asserted that Romney was "doubling down on stupid to overcompensate for any hint of a compassion deficit."
Hence my (momentary) twinge of sympathy for Romney. His ideological contortions, whichever direction they take him, land him in the same can't-win cul-de-sac.
Nobody can be sure that he believes any of it.