Moderation is a celebrated goal in American politics but is usually forgotten in the home stretch of an election. Campaigns are not lecture tours and this one is no exception. However, the trend toward planting a flag firmly on the Right or the Left has accelerated in the last 12 years. Particularly in the Republican camp, which has seen its moderate wing eviscerated.
Mitt Romney, by all measuring, came from the center of the GOP. His father, George Romney, represented the best the party could offer. He was thoughtful, creative and very much concerned that the South, new to Republicans, would set the pace on civil rights. George Romney's 1968 presidential campaign is instructive for it was undone by the new media. He was hurt by the race riots in Detroit in August 1967 and destroyed by a comment made by a late night talk show when Romney conceded that after a 1965 trip to South Vietnam he was "brainwashed."
What is remarkable about the incident is the elder Romney got it right. He meant what he said and his words were clear that the U.S. government moved heaven and earth to assure support for Lyndon Johnson's build-up in July 1965. By 1967 Romney thoughtfully readjusted his views, questioning whether the war was winnable or justified. For being thoughtful he was hung out to dry, given that "brainwashed" had unpleasant connotations left over from the Korean War. Never could anyone be thoughtful again. Richard Nixon said little about Vietnam and won.
Indeed, when Ronald Reagan got too specific on Social Security in 1976 he was pilloried by the press, who aided his Republican rival President Gerald R. Ford. The lesson to Reagan: give them boiler plate and never try to explain a different spin on the issue. Conservatives learned to use any creative approach to foreign policy against thoughtful advocates. No "giveaway" of the Panama Canal and a defense that was huge. Domestically "no new taxes" and revenue cuts became a sure winner. To be sure politicians had great instincts because the voters rarely responded to the middle approach, although they claimed they yearned for it.
Coming out of the labyrinth of the South Carolina Republican Party, Lee Atwater was all about tactics. In 1988 he focused on flags and pledges of allegiance, George W. Bush won but it left him in a difficult spot to govern. Lee Atwater, who was not particularly conservative, never the less pushed the hot buttons that made a difference.
These tactics had their roots in the Democratic Party in Dixie. Conservatives, ever mindful of change, watched as so-called liberals - mostly "Business Progressives" - protected their interests while promoting increased expenditures for highways and education. As the national party steadily insisted on civil rights, those traditional business interests - chemicals, cotton and timber - took up race as a tactic. This was not always so, for progressives in the South used the race card to place plantation owners particularly on the defensive. In 1948, when some conservatives backed Strom Thurmond, some were dismayed; one exclaimed "they got no right to use race, that belongs to our side of the fence."
Atwater's South Carolina also conflated civil rights with labor unions. Roger Milliken, later a key figure in the Republican Party, closed a textile mill when it voted to unionize in 1957. When Strom Thurmond switched to the GOP in 1964, the trend was clear.
Hit it where they ain't and go where "the ducks are" as Barry Goldwater crisply stated. Blanket commitments leave no wiggle room. Given George Romney's fate it is little wonder why his son Mitt is running the campaign far to the right.