WASHINGTON -- Poor Mitt Romney. I'm beginning to feel a bit sorry for the guy.
President Barack Obama steals his ideas and implements them, forcing Romney to denounce the very proposals he once supported. After all, you can't seek the GOP nomination for the presidency unless you are prepared to bash the president with heaping doses of vitriol, right? You can't be caught agreeing with a single idea that Obama -- that radical, socialist Kenyan Marxist -- has ever had.
So Romney has once again had to distance himself from -- well, from himself. On automobile industry bailouts, though, Romney's contortions have been more convoluted and difficult than on health care reform because they required a triple-flip, a move that had to be hard on the joints of a middle-aged man. (Those moves should have been hard on his integrity, too, but he seems to have surrendered that for the duration of the campaign.)
Anyway, if you're having trouble keeping up, here's the story: Once upon a time, Romney favored limited government support for an American automobile industry in crisis. Romney knows something about that business because his father, George, was a longtime automobile executive --and later a governor of Michigan.
So there was reason to listen to Romney the Younger when he wrote a November 2008 newspaper essay proposing government help for Detroit, but only through a tough-love approach. He insisted on labor concessions, a change in management and a bankruptcy that would cost the shareholders.
Obama, the rascal, thought that was a pretty good idea. Ever the pragmatist seeking plans that might actually work, the president picked up Romney's basic outline. A man born in Detroit, as Romney was, might have claimed credit at the time.
He didn't. Instead, he rushed to join GOP leaders who were denouncing Obama's bailout of Detroit. "Government and union co-ownership: It would be as ineffective as it is un-American," Romney wrote in April 2009.
In fact, the approach has been a surprising success. The government-structured bankruptcies helped GM and Chrysler pave a road back to profitability for the first time in years. GM and Chrysler have repaid their loans, and the bailouts are now expected to cost taxpayers relatively little. (Ford didn't require government assistance.)
So, what does the Romney campaign have to say now? "Romney had the idea first. You have to acknowledge that. He was advocating for a course of action that eventually the Obama administration adopted," Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told The New York Times last week.
Geez. This is getting to be painful to watch.
It's no wonder that so many big-name Republicans are worried about their putative front-runner. He is already saddled with Romneycare, his Massachusetts health care reform law that came complete with an individual mandate -- the requirement that all citizens of the state buy insurance. The more desperately he tries to distinguish it from Obama's Affordable Care Act, the more apparent his dissembling becomes.
Romney's problem is a rather simple (if serious) one: He is a man of moderately conservative political instincts seeking office at a moment when his party has been taken over by hard-right reactionaries. He cannot remake himself in their image.
That's not just a problem for Romney, but also for the entire Republican Party. If it abandons practical ideas simply because Obama has embraced them, the GOP will find itself pushed farther and farther to the margins of credibility. (Actually, it's close to the fringes now.)
The auto industry bailouts, which started under President George W. Bush, were a risky move. Few expected GM and Chrysler to rebound as quickly as they have. Most experts thought the taxpayers would remain on the hook for countless billions.
But a deep recession, which threatened to decimate a linchpin of American manufacturing, called for creative measures to try to salvage jobs. They worked, saving not only GM and Chrysler but also countless ancillary businesses, from parts makers to restaurants that cater to workers.
Romney has not only surrendered the right to take credit for those measures, but he has also fueled lingering questions about whether he has the essential quality necessary to make such bold moves: a backbone.