The Perils of Plastic Man

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Begala

Mitt Romney lunges rightward. Is he moving in the wrong direction?

Unlike some of my right-wing friends, I actually believe in evolution. The shorthand for Darwin's Law is not "Only the Strong Survive," as a moronic coach said to me in seventh grade in Sugar Land, Texas. If it were, we'd be ruled by T. rex. Instead, human beings--who are slow, small, weak, and tasty--rule the world. Why? Because Darwin's theory predicts the survival of the "fittest," by which he meant the most adaptable. And Homo sapiens is incredibly adaptable.

I take this detour into Bio 101 to make a political point about Mitt Romney--Politicus americanus--who obviously believes in evolution. His adaptation has been remarkable. First he was a liberal: he voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas for president, spoke emotionally of a relative who died from an illegal abortion, and vowed to be more pro-gay-rights than Teddy Kennedy. Then he was a moderate: as Massachusetts governor he signed Romney-care, which included a health-insurance mandate--the moderate alternative to nationalized health care. Now Mittbot 3.0 is a conservative: he hammered Rick Perry from the xenophobic right, excoriating the Texas governor for allowing the children of undocumented workers to be educated at in-state tuition rates, and embracing Paul Ryan's House GOP budget, which even The Wall Street Journal said would "essentially end Medicare."

That, friends, is what I call adaptable. Romney is a political shape-shifter who will renege on any promise, abandon any pledge, betray any principle to please his audience. You get the sense that if Mitt were running in a primary where the key voting bloc were cannibals, he'd promise them missionaries.

But what if Romney has evolved in the wrong direction? What if all his desperate moves to the right are in vain?

The voters who will decide the 2012 election do not live on a left-right spectrum. (To be sure, hard-core Republicans do, but the GOP base will not pick the next president.) Instead, the world of moderate, independent swing voters lives on an up-down spectrum, moving between deference to elites and expressions of populist anger. And this is an angry moment, which is why smart politicians are moving not from left to right but from elitist to populist.

The contrast with Barack Obama is instructive. …