Whether Mitt Romney wins or loses tonight (or tomorrow, or next week), the most interesting story of the campaign, to my mind, is his turn to the center starting in the first debate. It’s interesting first of all because it happened so late. After the primaries, most pundits expected Romney to Etch-a-Sketch his way to the center. Instead, he chose Paul Ryan and temporarily turned the race into a referendum on entitlement cuts. Conservatives loved it, until Romney began falling behind in the polls, at which point they began slamming to the press.
Then, in the first debate, Romney unexpectedly tacked hard to the center, insisting that he didn’t want tax cuts for the rich, that he didn’t want to cut popular government programs and that he had no interest in changing abortion law. The result: Romney began rising in the polls, partly because his message had more appeal, but perhaps even more importantly because Romney sounds more authentic when he’s sounding moderate. Given the way he governed and campaigned in Massachusetts, it’s probably a truer representation of what he actually believes. And when candidates say what they actually believe, voters generally find them less phony.
But the really interesting part is that rather than provoking a right-wing revolt, Romney’s tack to the center actually buoyed conservatives. The reason: it began to work. For a year, the press had obsessed about whether Romney was right-wing enough for the Republican right. But what journalists largely missed is that in this super-partisan age, the hatred that activists feel for the other side gives general-election candidates a fair amount of room to tack to the center. The most important thing that each side’s partisans want from their nominee is to defeat the party they hate. And if you seem able to do that, many other sins are forgiven.
Whether Romney wins or not, his success in tacking to the center and retaining the GOP base is the fact about the 2012 campaign that may have the most long-term significance. In future presidential primaries, of course, Republicans will still have to sound conservative. But judging by Romney’s success this fall, it’s now more possible that the GOP nominee in 2016—whether it’s Romney or someone else—will feel they have more ideological freedom. That’s good for long-term Republican prospects. And it will stand as Romney’s signature accomplishment, whether he wins the White House or not.