JONATHAN COHN DECEMBER 16, 2010
Sorry for the light posting these last few days. I've been battling feature deadlines and a head cold. But I did want to say a little more about Mitt Romney, who made news twice this week--first with an op-ed denouncing the Obama-Republican tax deal and, second, with a statement celebrating the district court opinion invalidating part of the Affordable Care Act.
The statements didn't merely provoke scorn from liberal writers like me. They also drew fire from two smart, if iconoclastic, conservatives: David Frum and Ross Douthat. I think it's fair to say that both wrote about Romney in sorrow rather than anger. Both think Romney is a smart, capable public figure who has within him the makings of a very effective leader. But both are disappointed by Romney's panders to the right, which are increasingly illogical, inconsistent, or both.
Frum hasn't quite given up on Romney:
There is an old joke that Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds. Something similar can be said of Romney’s campaign economics. Concealed within the triangulation are some very smart ideas. I remain convinced: this man could be a very good conservative president – if conservatives will permit it.
Douthat, though, has seen enough:
Yes, the argument runs, Romney seems serially insincere, and nearly every position he stakes out comes across as a blatant (and often inconsistent-looking) pander to a conservative electorate that regards him with suspicion. But there are good ideas concealed within the pandering — you just have to know where to look! And in your heart, you know he’s a smart guy who’d make a solid center-right president — wonkish, detail-oriented, sensible on policy, all the rest of it. He’s just a prisoner of the process! And heck, maybe his transparent insincerity is even a virtue: It shows that try as he might, he can’t give himself over completely to the carnival of a primary campaign, because he’s fundamentally too sober and serious to be a carnival barker. ... There’s a highly competent chief executive trapped inside his campaign persona, in other words, and the only way to liberate him is to put him in the White House! ...
There were probably people who said the same thing about George H.W. Bush during his lackluster 1988 race — and he did turn out to be a reasonably good president, all things considered. But there’s still an element of absurdity about it. I believe that Mitt Romney is a more serious person, and would probably be a better president, than his campaign style suggests. But issue by issue, policy by policy, that same campaign style makes it awfully hard to figure out where he would actually stand when the pandering stops and the governing begins. In the last couple years, Romney has taken high-profile positions that I agree with (opposing the G.M. bailout), high-profile positions that I disagree with (opposing the START Treaty), and high-profile positions on issues I’m uncertain about (the current tax deal). But because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.
You may not believe this, but I know how Douthat and Frum feel.
Notwithstanding my liberal beliefs and general affinity for Democratic politicians, I once had very high hopes for Romney as a presidential candidate. He had raw intelligence and management acumen, as his tenure at Bain Consulting demonstrated. In Massachusetts politics, he'd staked out moderate positions, pledging not to interfere with a woman's right to abortion (in part because a family friend had died after an illegal procedure) and criticizing conservatives like Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson in interviews with gay community newspapers.
Most important of all, Romney had accomplished something meaningful in office, signing the Massachusetts health care reforms. In a profile for TNR, here's how I described that episode:
Romney's subsequent work on the health care bill showcased his best qualities--reminiscent, in many ways, of his days at Bain. For advice, he tapped some of the state's top minds on health--even those, like MIT's Jonathan Gruber, who had traditionally advised Democrats. For political support, he reached out to traditional champions of expanded coverage, such as former House member John McDonough, turning these would-be adversaries into allies. And, above all, he went into negotiations with an open mind. The result was a bill that had enough support to get all the way through the legislative process. Romney ended up signing the bill in a grand public ceremony on the steps of Fanueil Hall. Standing at his sidewas his old nemesis, Ted Kennedy--who, it turns out, had worked closely with Romney on sealing the deal. "I'm a partisan Democrat, and, in a lot of ways, I think he was a terrible governor," says one high-ranking legislative staffer who worked on the measure."But I do give him credit for participating in the health care debate and helping to advance that agenda."
All of this made me think that Romney was the heir to the tradition of moderate Republicanism that his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, had once championed. During the 1960s, the elder Romney had fought the good fight against the Republicans' Goldwater wing, urging the party to distance itself from John Birchers and other conservative extremists. The elder Romney never made it as a presidential candidate but maybe the younger Romney would.
Mitt wouldn't be getting my vote, obviously: He was still pretty conservative, particularly on economic issues. But I thought his problem-solving instincts and apparently sincere interest in public service would serve him well and that, when it was all over, he might end up doing good things in office.
But by early 2007, when I began the reporting of my profile, Romney was in full pander mode--saying whatever it took to win over the Republican base, even if that meant campaigning as precisely the sort of conservative ideologue his father had once disdained:
...if any one moment epitomized the new Mitt Romney, it was his speech before the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) in February. There, gathered in one place, were the intellectual and ideological heirs to the conservative movement that first captured control of the Republican Party in the 1960s. But Mitt Romney had not come to carry on his father's fight against the right wing. He had come, instead, to do what every other aspiring Republican presidential nominee was doing: beg for the group's approval. After being introduced by Grover Norquist, the conservative activist perhaps most responsible for the radical makeover of government economic policy in the last decade, Romney began his speech by suggesting it was a "good thing" the crowd would soon hear from Ann Coulter, who was next on the speaking agenda. From there, he fed the crowd red meat--attacking Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, and the press; promising to fight the liberal social agenda, to close U.S.borders, and to never, ever raise taxes. "This is not the time for us to shrink from conservative principles," Romney thundered. "It is time for us to stand in strength."
Romney's latest panders make me wonder not if those of us who believed in Romney were wrong about him from the beginning. After all, it was Ted Kennedy, back in 1996, who first zeroed in on Romney inconsistencies on abortion with the devastating line: "He's not pro-choice, he's not anti-choice. He's multiple choice."
Of course, most politicians pander. And there are times that I believe, as Frum apparently does, that the real Romney would make a decent public servant. But mostly I'm with Douthat these days: It's become virtually impossible to tell where the fake Romney ends and the real one begins.