The evidence for this is overwhelming, yet it is the year's best-kept secret. Mitt Romney would not be throwing virtually all of his past positions overboard if he thought the nation were ready to endorse the full-throated conservatism he embraced to win the Republican nomination.
If conservatism were winning, does anyone doubt that Romney would be running as a conservative? Yet unlike Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, Romney is offering an echo, not a choice. His strategy at the end is to try to sneak into the White House on a chorus of me-too's.
The right is going along because its partisans know Romney has no other option. This, too, is an acknowledgement of defeat, a recognition that the grand ideological experiment heralded by the rise of the tea party has gained no traction. It also means that conservatives don't believe that Romney really believes the moderate mush he's putting forward now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the conservatives are forgiving Romney because they think he is lying, what should the rest of us think?
Almost all of the analysis of Romney's highly public burning of the right's catechism focuses on such tactical issues as whether his betrayal of principle will help him win over middle-of-the-road women and carry Ohio. What should engage us more is that a movement that won the 2010 elections with a bang is trying to triumph just two years later on the basis of a whimper.
It turns out that there was no profound ideological conversion of the country two years ago. We remain the same moderate and practical country we have long been. In 2010, voters were upset about the economy, Democrats were demobilized, and President Obama wasn't yet ready to fight. All the conservatives have left now is economic unease. So they don't care what Romney says. They are happy to march under a false flag if that is the price of capturing power.
The total rout of the right's ideology, particularly its neoconservative brand, was visible in Monday's debate in which Romney praised one Obama foreign policy initiative after another. He calmly abandoned much of what he had said during the previous 18 months. Gone were the hawkish assaults on Obama's approach to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, China and nearly everywhere else. Romney was all about "peace."
Romney's most revealing line: "We don't want another Iraq." Thus did he bury without ceremony the great Bush-Cheney project. He renounced a war he had once supported with vehemence and enthusiasm.
Then there's budget policy. If the Romney/Paul Ryan budget and tax ideas were so popular, why would the candidate and his sidekick, the one-time devotee of Ayn Rand, be investing so much energy in hiding the most important details of their plans? For that matter, why would Ryan feel obligated to forsake his love for Rand, the proud philosopher of "the virtue of selfishness" and the thinker he once said had inspired his public service?
Romney knows that by substantial margins, the country favors raising taxes on the rich and opposes slashing many government programs, including Medicare and Social Security. Since Romney's actual plan calls for cutting taxes on the rich, he has to disguise the fact. Where is the conviction?
The bailout was the least popular policy Obama pursued -- and, I'd argue, one of the most successful. It was Exhibit A for tea partyers who accused our moderately progressive president of being a socialist. In late 2008, one prominent Republican claimed that if the bailout the Detroit-based automakers sought went through, "you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye." The car companies, he said, would "seal their fate with a bailout check." This would be the same Mitt Romney who tried to pretend on Monday that he never said what he said or thought what he thought. If the bailout is now good politics, and it is, then free-market fundamentalism has collapsed in a heap.
"Ideas have consequences" is one of the conservative movement's most honored slogans. That the conservatives' standard-bearer is now trying to escape the consequences of their ideas tells us all we need to know about who is winning the philosophical battle -- and, because ideas do matter, who will win the election.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).