A President Romney would be captive to the reactionaries who have taken over the GOP. (More)

With Rick Santorum having suspended his Presidential campaign, Mitt Romney is now the presumptive Republican candidate for president. Over the preceding week or so, as it became clear that Romney would be the nominee, President Obama’s campaign sharpened its attacks on Romney and the rest of the GOP. At the same time, Romney began making a predictable move towards the political center. Many will attack this move as yet another example of Multiple Choice Mitt flip-flopping on the issues. But Romney’s failure to stand up during the Republican primaries for the centrist values he will spend all fall pretending to support is a far more politically and substantively telling fact, as it shows that Romney would be unable as president to stand up to the rabid reactionaries who have overtaken his own party.

Romney first came onto the national scene, of course, as Governor of Massachusetts. Given that state’s progressive political leanings, Romney not surprisingly governed as a relative moderate. He helped develop and signed the RomneyCare health care reform plan upon which ObamaCare is based. Romney acknowledged the reality of climate change, and took relatively moderate positions on LGBT rights, immigration reform, and even choice. Based on this record, Romney was widely perceived as a fairly moderate Republican who was not in league with the fire-breathing reactionaries who run today’s GOP.

A radically different Romney, however, appeared during the GOP Presidential primary race this year. Faced with a Republican Party that had been overtaken by rabid reactionaries, Romney decided not to fight for the centrism that he needed to pursue in Massachusetts or the reality-based conservatism that had been championed by his father George Romney in the 1960s. Instead, Romney time and time again joined in and encouraged the level of craziness that define today’s GOP. Examples abound, including:

* Supported Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) “marvelous” Austerity Budget, which would abolish Medicare and eviscerate social investments in order to finance $4.6 trillion in tax giveaways to the wealthy

* Sided with GOP Governor’s Scott Walker (WI) and John Kasich’s (OH) politically unpopular attacks on the rights of public employees to collectively bargain over their wages, benefits, and working conditions

* Vowed to “get rid of” funding for Planned Parenthood, and supported the Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed any employer to deny its employees health insurance coverage for contraception

* Echoed the climate deniers’ false claims that “we don’t know what is causing climate change”

* Declared Arizona’s harsh anti-immigration law to be a “model” for the nation, promised to veto the DREAM Act, and took other steps that led blogger Steve Benen to justifiably declare Romney “the the most right-wing candidate on immigration of any competitive presidential hopeful in generations.”

* Signed the 2012 pledge of the anti-LGBT National Organization for Marriage, thereby vowing to support a federal anti-marriage equality Constitutional amendment, defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and appoint so-called “originalist” federal judges.

* Promised to abolish ObamaCare on day one of any Romney Presidential Administration.

Now that he is the presumptive Republican nominee, however, Romney is making a predictable move back to the center. For example, as Thomas Edsall pointed out at the New York Times a few days ago, Romney has already made subtle changes to his rhetoric on immigration, reproductive freedom, and economic issues that suggest a less right wing approach. And Romney is already trying to back away from his attacks on Planned Parenthood and support for the Blunt Amendment by suggesting that women will support him once they understand his “real positions.” As Romney’s communications director Eric Fehrnstrom might say, the Etch-a-Sketching has already begun.

With Romney’s positions bouncing around like a ping pong ball, how should Democrats react? Remembering the attacks that were successfully leveled at John Kerry in 2004, many will eagerly brand Romney a flip-flopper who lacks the values and principles needed to be president. And that is certainly true. But to the extent such a focus requires pointing out that Romney is taking more moderate positions during the general election, that approach could also backfire as it could help Romney falsely convince voters that he truly is a centrist. As Paul Krugman recently pointed out, the chattering classes in DC, in their desperation to find moderate Republicans who don’t really exist anymore, continue to try to portray Paul Ryan as a reasonable and fiscally responsible politician, despite his budget proposal that would increase the deficit, end Medicare, and slash the safety net in order to finance $4.6 trillion in tax cuts for the wealthy. If the chattering classes are doing that for Paul Ryan, imagine how eager they will be to accept Romney’s effort to convince voters that he really is a moderate.

As such, it will be far more important to portray Romney not simply as a flip flopper, but rather as a candidate so lacking in values, principles, and spine that, when the cards were down, he was entirely unable to stand up to the right wing and, instead, joined in the attacks on reproductive freedom, immigrants, LGBT Americans, working people, the poor, etc. Given this performance, imagine how Romney would act as president, when he would be under extreme pressure from the Koch Brothers, right wing activists, and the Fox “News”-led conservative media echo chamber to carry out their right wing agenda. When Romney is deciding who to appoint to the federal judiciary and to his cabinet, would he stand up to the right wing? When Romney is deciding what Executive Orders to issue, would he stand up to the right wing? When Romney is deciding whether to veto reactionary legislation passed by a Republican Congress, would he stand up to the right wing? Romney’s performance during the GOP Presidential primaries demonstrates that the answer to each of those questions is almost certainly no.

In short, no matter how much Romney tries to moderate his positions over the next seven months, we need to remind voters that on issue after issue, Romney was more than happy to take on rabidly reactionary positions as his own throughout the GOP primary. Romney may try to Etch-A-Sketch his way out of those positions now, but an Etch-A-Sketch is not going to stand up to the right wing reactionaries that have taken over the GOP and that would be running the show during a Romney Administration.