Settling for Mitt Romney
If the eyes of most conservative Republicans, Mitt Romney is too wishy-washy, a flip-flopper, and, worst of all, a RINO (Republican in Name Only). Mitt's primary victories aside, these critics insist that his mushiness reflects poorly on the current party system and that the GOP should offer a full-fledged conservative alternative to Obama.
That criticism misunderstands the design of American politics. The system is supposed to produce moderation, not "full-strength" candidate such as Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. That "real" conservatives trail behind demonstrates that everything is functioning according to plan.
Let me offer an analogy that simplifies how the system works. Imagine five people going out for pizza, each with distinct preferences -- e.g., anchovy, black olives, pepperoni, green peppers, and mushroom. Further assume that at least one person strenuously objects to the preference of every other -- for example, a vegetarian abhors pepperoni but can live with garlic, mushrooms, onions, and green peppers, while another detests black olives but can stand any type of meat. Outside ordering individual pizzas, the group will eventually order a double-cheese pizza since that satisfies everybody though the first choice of none. Everybody gets something edible, and nobody goes hungry. American politics is based on the double-cheese pizza principle -- living with a less than perfect outcome.
A double-cheese pizza is hardly inevitable. Our electoral system could be modified so that everyone gets his own pizza, regardless of what others want. Many European nations use a get-my-first-choice-system called proportional representation (PR), and it works as follows. First, multiple parties, perhaps ranging from Monarchists to Communists, each offers a candidate list. Second, voters choose a single list, and third, legislative seats are awarded based on proportion of the votes received -- so if the Libertarian Party wins 20% of the vote, that party wins 20% of the legislative seats (the mechanics are more complicated than our account, but the principle is the same). Lastly, since no one party ever wins an outright majority, intense bargaining follows the election to build a majority to designate the prime minister. If the U.S. followed that system, Libertarians might form a hodgepodge coalition with a social conservative party, an anti-immigration party, and some other minor parties to gain a legislative majority. What is critical is that several majority coalitions are numerically possible, and the winning combination is unknown prior to voters making their choice.
Moreover, no guarantee exists that negotiations will end quickly. Horse-trading may drag on for weeks, and Belgium recently took 18 months before a governing coalition emerged. At least in the presidential election "crisis" of 2000, Americans knew that the victory would go to either Bush or Gore.
Under PR, everybody gets to vote his relatively pure ideological stance (though there are usually some restrictions affecting tiny parties), but the resulting government is almost always a mishmash, given the need to cobble together a coalition of minorities to make a majority. Put in pizza terms, everybody orders his favorite, but the pizza what emerges from the kitchen results from hidden negotiations among the kitchen staff. In the above example, the final product may be cheese, garlic, and green peppers since the cooks hope to please everybody, though not a single person ordered this particular combination. This example hardly exaggerates. A German election once brought a coalition government resting on the votes of Christian conservatives and socialists, and odd political bedfellow coalitions seem to be an Israeli staple.
Thus understood, if a government is to reflect a majority, the only choice is whether the mishmash is selected by each individual voter before voting or by party leaders post-election. Save those voters who prefer the resultant often unpredictable muddle, nobody ever gets his first choice. This "shortcoming" of getting less than one's first choice is built into every democratic election system.
The Founding Fathers wanted this jumbled outcome, not rule by what Madison called "minority factions." Better to have government from the compromise-inclined center, no matter how untidy, and versus rule by a faction favored only by a quarter of the population, be it from the right or the left. The American public historically seems to agree -- remember the defeat of such ideological outliers as Goldwater and McGovern. Victory by an ideologically driven minority also almost guarantees deeply felt outrange among losers (who are, after all, a majority). It is no accident that the Civil War followed the election of Lincoln, who received only 39.6% of the popular vote in a four-way contest, and Lincoln failed to carry a single slave or border state. Imagine if Obama had won the presidency with 38% of the popular vote by winning only states with a large minority vote!
It is just a matter of arithmetic. Under our winner-take-all system (in a two-candidate race), 49% gets you zero. So victory (50.1%) requires assembling a coalition -- typically one where voters disagree among themselves. Candidates necessarily move to the middle or gloss over specifics if they want to win. Flip-flopping is inescapable, since alienating even a tiny sliver of potential supporters can bring defeat. This is not a choice of strategies; our constitutional system virtually requires it, and with the exception of the Civil War, this push to a bewildering middle has resulted in a stable political system for 220 years.
The Constitution abounds with mechanisms that reflect a desire for consensus which, in the context of 1788, meant an elected president having wide geographical support -- which, in turn, meant an appeal to regions with their distinct economic interests, religions, and cultures. The president and vice president must reside in different states so a single state cannot monopolize the executive branch. The Electoral College also gives disproportionate influence to small states and thus prevents voters in a few large states from imposing their will. Finally, if no candidate wins an Electoral College majority, the House, with each state delegation voting as a unit (i.e., Delaware and California are equal) will choose the winner among the top three finishers. Clearly, the Founders hoped that the victorious presidential candidate would draw heterogeneous support -- small states and big states, north and south, commercial and agricultural interests -- while the ticket itself would reflect geographical balance.
To be sure, geographical balances (and interests once coterminous with geography) have receded as the primary fault lines of American politics, but multiple others have replaced them. Some are racial/ethnic, while the religious division is often one of religiosity itself, not sect. Economic differences now number in the dozens. For the Founders, managing -- not eliminating-- these conflicts was critical for the young Republic's survival and the Constitution's electoral arrangement is designed to accomplish this task. The Constitution certainly does not aim to sharpen them by encouraging every minor persuasion to have its own candidates who, once elected, would hammer out policy as if they were ambassadors from sovereign nations writing a U.N. treaty. (The frequent use of super-majorities, such as ratifying treaties, also aimed at creating a broad consensus.)
Madison and the others who drafted the Constitution would be horrified if presidential campaigns, including primaries, were contests among impassioned narrow ideologically driven factions. In fact, one of Madison's justifications for a large Republic was that diversity of interest would hobble any one bloc from dominating (Federalist 10). Recall the unanimous selection of the faction-detesting Washington, a man who said almost nothing while presiding over the constitutional convention and appealed to everyone. Firebrands need not have applied.
This is not to argue that only white-bread, innocuous candidates are qualified to be president. Rather, our constitutional system is designed to promote consensus and trade-offs, not sharpness, and so those candidate who embrace this tactic are not to be castigated. Those who desire ideologically purity should instead try to alter our electoral system, perhaps campaigning for PR, not condemn those who adapt to constitutionally defined incentives (see here for PR efforts in the U.S.). One may disagree with Romney's policies and instead prefer more ideologically distinctive candidates, but in the context of our Constitution, Romney-like candidates are what the Founders wanted.