Sunday, March 11, 2012

In defense (a little) of Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney is regarded pretty much across the political spectrum as the most malleable and opportunistic of candidates, willing to say anything to get elected.

If, however, you accept the premises that a) Romney has the ability and skill set to be a good president,  b) his only path to the presidency is the Republican nomination, c) he would make a better president than any other Republican candidate, and should therefore seek the nomination, and d) to win that nomination, he has to adopt many positions that he would not otherwise adopt, then it is true, as Romney has protested, that "I've been as consistent as human beings can be" (btw, I always found it telling that he pluralized that, effectively confessing to multiple personalities).

Romney's core positions sound like Republican orthodoxy. But generally, they are not only less extreme than those of his rivals, bu also vague enough to leave him room to tack back to the center, particularly if the Democrats retain at least one house of Congress or at least a filibuster firewall.  For example:

  • Romney's budget proposal has been widely criticized for including $3 trillion in new tax cuts over ten years, mainly for the wealthy -- which, coupled with increased defense spending, would mandate gargantuan cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and discretionary domestic spending.  Unless, that is, the cuts were rendered revenue neutral, as Romney claims they would be, by offsetting tax loopholes closures, which he has failed to specify. While that failure may spell political cowardice, it does set a benchmark for any negotiated tax reform that's far to the left of his rivals' "plans."  Gingrich has called for tax cuts worth $7 trillion over ten years, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and Santorum, $6 trillion. And it's worth recalling that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney did close corporate tax loopholes to boost revenues by hundreds of millions.
  • Romney's attacks on Obama's conduct of foreign policy are a repugnant litany of lies: that Obama began his presidency with "an apology tour"; that he "threw Israel under the bus:' that he sought to appease Iran and, earlier, Russia; that he got rolled in negotiating the New START treaty endorsed by every living past secretary of state. Romney's recent op-ed laying out his Iran policy was founded on a myth -- that fear of Reagan led Khomeini's regime to release the hostages shortly after his inaugural -- and structured by a lie -- that Obama has merely "fretted" in the White House and failed to impose significant pressure on Iran. Yet for all its bluster, the piece stops short of promising war or suggesting that war is the likely endgame.  Indeed, it's been ridiculed for essentially replicating Obama's policy, with a bit of extra posturing in the Eastern Mediterranean. Santorum, in contrast, has asserted that he would bomb Iran now. Gingrich has offered unequivocal support for an Israeli preemptive strike at any moment of Israel's choosing.
  • Romney has driven me insane by repeatedly insisting that the Affordable Care Act is the polar opposite of Romneycare while stressing the virtues of those features of Romneycare that the ACA adopted in toto -- leaving the current employer-based system intact, establishing private exchanges, imposing the individual mandate.  At the same time, by refusing to repudiate his own plan and advocating a state-by-state solution, Romney has left room for compromise with a Congress in which Democrats have any leverage -- particularly  if the Supreme Court upholds the individual mandate. He could conceivably move up the deadline to grant state waivers -- as Obama has proposed to do --  to fulfill the ACA coverage goals by means other than those outlined in the ACA, spurring a somewhat more variegated patchwork of state systems than the ACA is likely to spawn under Democratic control.  Of course, he could strive to gut funding and hamstring implementation in any numbers of ways.  But the extent to which he would do this might depend in part on the composition of Congress, not to say the Supreme Court ruling. The ACA would presumably be less dead under Romney than under any Republican alternative.
Personally, I do not accept the syllogism I outlined above, justifying Romney's current course. If he is as moderate as his economic record as governor of Massachusetts suggests, the honorable course would have been to be a voice in the Republican wilderness, positioned to take the lead when the party eventually tacks back toward the center, as it might if an extremist like Santorum were to get creamed in 2012.  If he succeeds, he will have made cynics of us all, since his shape-shifting is as transparent to conservatives as it is to progressives; we will have really entered a post-truth political era, to adopt Paul Krugman's tag for Romney's campaign. But the policy outcomes are likely to less extreme than those that would have resulted from any of his rivals winning the presidency.

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