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Has Romney Painted Himself into a Far Right Corner?

08/28/2012 05:09 EDT | Updated 10/28/2012 05:12 EDT

A key challenge facing Republicans is that of moderation -- can they regain its luster and substance to capitalize on Americans' economic frustration? It is a challenge all mainstream political parties in western democracies cannot ignore if they hope to be elected. Moderation is the complex term for political balance, which is, after all, about judgement. No voter or candidate could have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, or the events of 9-1-1 when they voted for either Reagan or George H.W. or George W. Bush. But they did decide on the judgement they wanted in their President.

Stephen Harper, David Cameron, and Angela Merkel did choose moderation in order to place realistic conservative platforms successfully before their voters. Republicans have done so in the past when successful candidates, men like Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes won national elections by appearing more practical than their Democratic opponents. Moderation for these Republicans was not surrender or weakness but electoral necessity. This challenge has been made no easier by the selection of Congressman Ryan as the Vice-Presidential nominee. Intensity, enthusiasm and conviction are all compelling, but they do not always equal balance or judgement.

Conservative principles are not the issue. In fact, fiscal sanity, foreign policy principle and a belief in more modest and less over-reaching government have never mattered more to both America and its allies who need her to be economically robust. Mitt Romney, who appears to be both decent and genuine in many ways is a natural inheritor of the stability and world-wise balance of President Eisenhower, the outreach to China and focus on poverty of Richard Nixon, the foreign policy principle and free trade engagement of Ronald Reagan or the general foreign policy and defence focus of both Bush presidencies. None of these were perfect leaders but when they made their case to Americans, affability and moderation were the key tonal definition of their campaigns.

Governor Romney, whose dad was a moderate governor of Michigan, and who himself implemented a version of universal health insurance while Governor of Massachusetts, was the choice of the Republican leadership simply because his moderate disposition meant a winning potential for the Republican ticket.

President Obama is ahead nationally and in swing states largely because Republican excess on the far right has put him there. If Republicans are determined to let abortion, apparent anti-immigrant bias and fuzziness on medicare define their conservatism they will be choosing the choppy seas of undulating radicalism as a base from which to win the bridge on the ship of state.

Conservatives at their best in any democracy are about stability, respect for history and an embrace of economic and social reality as it really is. Building a stronger future for the mainstream is about broadening that mainstream and giving those who are disadvantaged a real stake in a moderate and inclusive future where freedom, order and stability maximise opportunity and reinforce each other.

Aspirational radicalism, which often combines extremism with divisive "beggar thy neighbour" and unrealistic excess on the right or the left, drives voting majorities elsewhere. Wedge politics is ultimately destructive both of the nation it divides and the cause for which it is deployed.

Realism helps here. President Obama inherited the worst economic "in basket" in recent times. Wall Street excess that preceded his presidency underlines how government must be the source of balancing engagement when other aspects of society either fail or choose unsustainable risk for quick profit. That being said, on discreet choices the Obama administration has made, Republicans have a genuine chance to argue for better choices in the future. But they are unlikely to do so while tripping over the sandal straps of abortion, voter suppression and congressional obstruction. And doing so with the burden of unhinged radicalism around their necks will weigh down the trajectory of their campagn for rational change.

Republicans, in a host of large and small states, chose the most moderate of the viable candidates for the nomination, despite a wide range of more radical options. That apparent moderation set Governor Romney apart. Deserting that moderation may, from time to time, appeal to those narrow slices of a party's base that prefer anger to compromise or simplicity to maturity.

Romney still has a chance to clearly embrace moderation and pragmatism. If he sets that chance aside he will lose the election by a greater margin than the decent and courageous John McCain in 2008 and set back moderate conservatives everywhere, especially those who prefer inclusive and stable politics over angry and self-indulgent radicalism.