For the last three months, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been repeating the same argument against Mitt Romney: He’s a moderate, and a moderate Republican can’t win the White House. Naturally, given Gingrich’s stature as a historian, the critique dredges up memories of campaigns past. “We tried a moderate in 1996, and he couldn’t debate Bill Clinton effectively,” Gingrich said in January. “We tried a moderate in 2008. He couldn’t debate Barack Obama effectively and lost.” Santorum, too, has invoked the gruesome specters of Bob Dole and John McCain. “Look at the races in the last 30 years,” he chimed in last month. “[When] we nominated a moderate: McCain, Dole, Gerald Ford. When George [H.W.] Bush ran for re-election back in 1992 … [They] all lost.”
The argument is incredibly self-serving—both men invariably cast themselves as Reagan-esque antidotes to Romney’s flaccid centrism. It’s also highly counterintuitive: As much as conservatives like to believe the average American aligns with their worldview, the country is clearly far, far more progressive than the typical Tea Partier. (Not surprisingly, polls have consistently shown Romney faring much better against Barack Obama than either rival.) But that doesn’t make the argument untrue! Indeed, if the last week or so has taught us anything, it’s that Romney’s reputation for moderation could be a major liability against Obama.