I was on CNN's Reliable Sources the other day (watch the video below), when host Howard Kurtz asked me why Mitt Romney has largely "gotten a pass" as he tacks to the political center.
Of course, in the days leading up to Nov. 6, it's a hot topic. Kurtz's Daily Beast colleague, blogger Andrew Sullivan, told ABC's This Week that Romney's Oct. 3 debate performance was "like an alien that ripped off his mask and said, 'I'm brand new now.'"
Sullivan added that Romney has "no core at all and has changed it a dozen times to appeal to whatever market share he's appealing to."
It is surely true that the Mitt Romney who voters met during that first debate was dramatically different from the Mitt Romney who Barack Obama helped define in the negative ads he released this summer.
In fact, the Mitt Romney who showed up at the debates was different from the Mitt Romney who won the Republican primaries this winter and spring.
Voters don't much care about Romney's past flips so long as his current flop is in their direction.
And yet, almost nobody is shocked or surprised by this. Here's why:
First, at this late point in the campaign, the media isn't terribly interested in litigating past policy details, lest it look like they're taking sides. Additionally, the "Romney-is-a-flip-flopper" narrative is decidedly old news. Just as the media collectively yawns when new information about Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright surfaces, Romney's flexibility is baked into the cake.
Plus, Romney's so-called moderation is more stylistic than substantive. The bases of both parties now conflate toughness with ideological purity, so winning the GOP primary required Romney to hurl "red meat" rhetoric as much as it required strict policy adherence to orthodox positions.
This is not to say that Romney hasn't Etch-a-Sketched some of his positions. He has. But the Romney we have seen lately has also been temperamentally moderate — even as he has embraced many conservative positions.
Just as Ronald Reagan's charm and demeanor reassured Americans — and undermined the notion that he was a right-wing radical — Romney's image since the first debate has been of a friendly and serious leader.
Of course, there is nothing mutually exclusive about being reasonable and conservative. As Mike Huckabee put it four years ago, "I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at anyone about it."
The only people upset with Romney's performance at the foreign policy debate seemed to be the hardcore conservatives and hardcore liberals. Both extremes wanted him to appear more bellicose — for entirely different reasons. But Romney was aiming for security moms and undecided voters in places like Ohio.
Predictably, the new Romney is driving liberals absolutely mad. Having initially decided it was easier to tag him as an ultra-conservative than as a flip-flopper, they went into the first debate hoping to cast him as a war-mongering plutocrat.
During that final debate, President Obama tried desperately to prove that Romney was instead a political chameleon. That didn't work, either. The look on Obama's face was one of frustration and disdain. I have seen that look before. It was the same look Romney's Republican adversaries had every time they failed to make Romney pay for his evolving positions during the GOP primary.
In many ways, we all learned the wrong lessons from John Kerry's defeat in 2004. He was cast as an effete windsurfer that voted for it before he voted against it. And so, we all assumed that flip-flopping was the unforgivable sin, and that catching someone doing it was a silver bullet.
But as frustrating as it may be, the one consistent thing Romney's opponents have learned is that voters don't much care about your past flip so long as your current flop is in their direction. In the primary, grassroots conservatives were generally okay with him flipping to their points of view. Now, voters looking for a serious moderate are relieved to see Romney flop their way.
And the truth is that voters often go with their intuition — and at the "gut" level, Romney is a moderate. It's entirely plausible that the reason Romney is now surging — the reason he is now more likeable — is that this Mitt Romney is actually more authentic than the "severely conservative" Mitt Romney.
Either way, politicians should quit expecting voters to care about consistency (even if we agree they should care). Voters aren't like a jury sworn to weigh the evidence and then hold people accountable for past actions or inconsistencies. Instead, they are more like a committee tasked to hire someone for the future.
Expecting someone to be shocked that a politician would move to the right (or left) to win a primary, and then tack to the center, is like Casablanca's Captain Renault being shocked — SHOCKED! — to find gambling at Rick's Café.
The people who try to point out inconsistencies, more often than not, look like tattletales, while the voters are more sophisticated and Emersonian in their acceptance of the notion that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."