Perhaps only a man of elastic convictions like Mitt Romney can successfully navigate the polarized and paranoid battlefield of contemporary American politics. It is no longer merely a contest of Republicans versus Democrats or red states versus blue states, it is now a confrontation between two versions of reality.
Romney's latest incarnation as a relative moderate is reminiscent of the other Mormon candidate in the Republican primaries, Jon Huntsman. But the reason Romney is the nominee and Huntsman is just an occasional third-tier guest on political chat shows is that Romney was willing to bend his beliefs toward the paranoid, conspiracy-mongering right wing of his party and pretend to be one of them. Now, understanding that he could not stay forever in the alternative universe of the tea party and talk radio and actually win the presidency, he has bounced back toward the center.
Should he become president, though, he will have to contend with those in his party who operate with a different take on reality.
Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman who famously said women cannot get pregnant in a "legitimate rape," will not be bringing his curious ideas back to Washington if he fails to win his bid to become a U.S. senator, but there are plenty more like him on the roster of Republican senators and representatives. There is, for instance, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia who, in a speech at a Baptist church in his district, said evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of Hell” that keep people from understanding they need a savior.
Interestingly, Broun is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He joins a long list of GOP members of Congress who really do not accept scientific evidence of such things as climate change or an Earth that is a few billion, not a mere thousands, of years old.
Besides biblical literalists, Romney would have to contend with those both inside and outside of Congress who seem never to have seen a conspiracy theory they did not love.
These are people such as Jack Welch, the former boss at General Electric who, this week, sent out a tweet that insinuated the Obama administration had cooked the books to make the monthly jobs report come out more favorably for the president.
Welch offered no proof, and people who actually know how the process works said it is pretty much impossible to twist the statistics one way or another, yet Welch’s absurd contention got plenty of traction among conservatives who are predisposed to believe that President Obama is an illegitimate usurper who hates America and will do anything to retain power so he can continue his relentless drive toward socialism.
The weirdness in the Republican ranks gets even more stark at lower echelons of politics. The chairman of the Arkansas GOP recently had to rebuke two Republican legislative candidates for outrageous remarks. In a self-published book, one candidate, Rep. Jon Hubbard, argued that slavery was a “blessing in disguise” for African Americans. The other candidate, Charlie Fuqua, also authored a book. In it he said all Muslims should be expelled from the United States.
There is abundant evidence that at least half of those who call themselves Republicans believe things that are either far out of the American mainstream or are patently false (Obama is a Muslim, Obama was born in Kenya, Obama is conspiring to confiscate everyone’s guns, etc.). The question is whether Romney will resist the loonies in his party should he become president, or whether he will go along with the crazier impulses of the right-wingers in Congress.
The answer to that depends on what Romney really believes and, given that he has been on all sides of most issues in his political career, it is nearly impossible to know what that may be.