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Is Romney running against Bush's third term?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 8:04 AM EDT, Thu July 12, 2012
Mitt Romney drew boos from the NAACP audience when he talked of repealing Obamacare.
Mitt Romney drew boos from the NAACP audience when he talked of repealing Obamacare.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Navarrette: Presidential candidates typically move to the center after primaries
  • He says this year, Romney is staying on the right, and Obama continues to take centrist stands
  • He says president has governed as if this was the third term of George W. Bush

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

San Diego, California (CNN) -- It was a Republican, Richard Nixon, who laid out the blueprint for getting elected president: In the primary, you court the extremes to please the party's base; in the general election, you race to the center to get as many votes as possible.

But nowadays, candidates in both parties tend to follow it. Many voters have probably become used to the idea that candidates go through this moderate makeover.

This year, however, there is a twist. Only one of the major candidates is in the center, and it's not the Republican.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The candidate on the right is staying put, well, on the right.

When Mitt Romney spoke Wednesday to the annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee did not sugarcoat his opposition to President Obama's policies, especially the president's health-care overhaul, which Romney promised to eliminate along with "every non-essential, expensive program" he could find. That pledge was met with a loud chorus of boos that lasted more than 10 seconds.

Romney responds to NAACP booing
Romney courts Obama's base
Romney enters political lion's den

Still, Romney didn't back down. He deserves credit for addressing a group that is so heavily invested in Obama, and even more credit for not turning himself inside out to be liked.

He also maintained his composure a few weeks ago when he addressed the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Romney didn't apologize for taking a hard-line against illegal immigration during the Republican primary to the point of portraying illegal immigrants as takers who hurt the economy and drain social services. Nor did he say he was wrong for opposing the DREAM Act, which would have given legal status to undocumented immigrants who go to college or join the military.

In my opinion, Romney should have said those things. He has a lot for which to apologize. But he didn't.

After the NAACP speech, one Romney adviser privately told a reporter for the New York Times that Romney has presented basically the same agenda to every audience throughout the campaign, and he commended the candidate for not backing away from positions that the audience was likely to find unpopular, like repealing Obamacare.

Political observers can argue over why they think this is happening. Maybe Romney only knows how to give one generic speech. Maybe he's not comfortable pandering to special interest groups, especially those with an ethnic or racial agenda.

From other things I've read, I think that Romney and his campaign advisers are terrified of him being labeled a "flip-flopper" and that this dissuades them from making any sharp turns or dramatic course corrections. More than anything, they want to do something that Romney has had trouble doing in the past: appear steady and consistent.

Meanwhile, President Obama has had liberal supporters scratch their heads as he claimed for his own a series of conservative positions that they oppose.

This is not simply an election year gimmick. It has been going on for sometime. In fact, if you ignore what Obama says and focus only on what he does, you'll see that Obama has actually spent most of his presidency in the center, even, on some issues, following the example of his predecessor.

While neither liberals nor conservatives are eager to admit it, they can no longer deny it: Americans are living through George W. Bush's third term. Obama loves to criticize the 43rd president, almost as much as he loves to emulate him. In the war on terror, aspects of foreign policy, education reform, immigration, corporate bailouts and a host of other issues with the exception of health care reform, Obama has taken up the sorts of positions that conservatives usually champion.

And the left has noticed, which is why the president now and then gets blowback from parts of the same liberal coalition that helped elect him. They must wonder what happened to the person they helped put in office, and many of these disillusioned liberals now talk about voting for Obama as the "lesser of two evils."

The president's decision this week to extend the Bush tax cuts for incomes under $250,000 is just the latest example of the president taking his cues from the former president that liberals love to hate.

(True, Obama is campaigning against the part of the Bush tax cuts that applied to income above $250,000.)

We'll soon know which of these strategies proves more successful in garnering votes: moving to the center, or staying the course. There are advantages and liabilities to each.

Of course, what would really be nice and refreshing, is, if just once, someone running for president on a major party ticket took positions not to manipulate the outcome of an election but because he believed they were the correct positions to take.

Maybe Obama and Romney are doing that. Maybe what we're hearing is what they really believe. It's hard to tell. And even harder to believe.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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