Sunday, November 18, 2012

David Frum's seductive vision of the Moderate Mitt that might have been

David Frum, as I noted last week, has been a consistent, clear-eyed and constructive critic of today's extremist, dead-end GOP.  His ebook Why Romney Lost is terrific as to diagnosis, though as usual I shake my head at the critique of Obama at the beginning and the rather hasty policy prescriptions at the end. I would take issue, too -- as I think Frum kind of does with himself -- on a perhaps moot point: the degree of responsibility Romney bears for his loss.

The basic premise is incontrovertible: the party forced Romney too far to the right:
In poll after poll, big majorities described the Republican nominee as favoring the wealthy over the middle class. 1 No surprise, therefore, that throughout the spring and summer of 2012, Obama held a multi-point lead.  over Romney, despite the president’s sub-50 percent job-approval rating. Then, in the final month of the election, Romney’s team at last released “Moderate Mitt from Massachusetts” from his six-year seclusion. Abruptly the election tightened (location 34).
In Frum's view, the party let Moderate Mitt down -- i.e., didn't let Romney be Romney:
Ironically, with Mitt Romney, the Republican Party found one of its most intelligent and articulate standard-bearers in decades. Yet we weren’t satisfied with him until we had forced him to jettison his own best self and judgment (Location 562).

Yet, contra this view of Romney as victim, Frum offers up a powerful vision of the moderate Mitt that might have been:
Mitt Romney could have run in 2012 as a compassionate conservative who brought universal health coverage to the state he governed. He could have run as a pragmatic problem-solver who would responsibly pay down America’s debt, mostly relying on spending cuts, but also adding some new revenues from taxes on consumption and pollution. He could have tested every policy proposal against the criteria: will it create jobs? Will it raise wages? Will it improve the life chances of the poor? He could have run as the leader of a party that was both conservative and inclusive, like the conservative parties in Canada, Britain, and Australia. 

He could have run as a candidate who championed entrepreneurs but knew how to say “no” to bankers. (Entrepreneurs dislike bankers, too!) He could have taken a firm stand against the race-baiting, slut-naming, and gay-mocking of the conservative entertainment complex. He could have closed his door against advisers who disdained the bottom 30 percent or 47 percent or 99 percent, and instead committed himself by word and deed always to represent as best he could the whole sprawling mess of the great American 100 percent (Location 381).
It could probably be argued in detail that Romney could not have won the nomination without pawning himself to the fabulist right. Frum himself does a tick-tock of Romney's rightward shifts during primary season, summarizing:
Criticize Romney as much as you like, the positions that consistently got him into the most trouble were precisely those the party had demanded from him: more and bigger tax cuts; repeal Dodd-Frank; more defense spending; shrink insurance coverage of contraception; cut healthcare subsidies for the young; protect healthcare subsidies for the old (Location 234).
Is it really true, though, that Romney could not have won the nomination without morphing into the "ten digits and a pen" demanded by Grover Norquist?  Against that hypothesis, there's the evidence of Republican reaction, as highlighted by Frum, when Romney executed his long-delayed pivot to the center:
In fact, almost all Republicans understood what Romney needed to do. Back in October, when there was a race to be won, we didn’t hear many conservatives demand that Romney campaign as an “authentic conservative.” We didn’t hear protests against Romney walking back his tax-cut pledge. We didn’t hear pleas for Romney to talk more about cutting Medicare and Medicaid. We didn’t hear advice that Romney release ads about abortion and same-sex marriage. We didn’t even hear complaints about the omission of the central conservative program from the stripped-down five-point economic plan...

When the presidency was on the line, conservatives awoke from the ideological fantasies of the previous four years. They regained clarity about how elections are fought and won. They granted Romney the freedom of action that they had denied him until the very last minute (Location 54).
Of course, Frum's narrative does imply a difference between primary season and the late Etch-A-Sketch. Romney's "October surprise" was transparent bullshit and fooled no one but those who hadn't been paying attention before Oct. 3. It had no substance: he did not lay out how he would offset the marginal rate cuts for the rich, nor promise not to make abortion a criterion when nominating Supreme Court justices, nor detail how he would provide health insurance for those with preexisting conditions while repealing Obamacare, nor explain with what kind of more effective bank regulation he would replace the reviled Dodd-Frank,  Had he taken the actual centrist positions implied by his October rhetoric during the primary fight, would he have failed to obtain the nomination?

I don't know. But I do know that Romney's hard-right positioning was not a matter of being 'forced.' Throughout his seven-year pursuit of the presidency, and perhaps throughout his entire political career, Romney preemptively shape-shifted to appeal to whatever target audience presented itself, tossing previous positions down the memory hole with the dexterity demanded of citizens of Oceania in 1984.  He never stood up to any powerful constituency, never presented any policy position that didn't stink of having been modeled to the market. His positions were per-designed, moreover, to be retroactively malleable. Go back and look at his November 2008 op-ed calling for  "managed bankruptcy" for GM and Chysler -- and try to figure out where he was proposing the financing would come from.  It's not quite true, as later charged, that he was recommending a privately-financed bankruptcy at that time, though he did claim, under primary pressure in 2011 or 2012, that that's what he had in mind. He simply left the question unaddressed, then carped at the terms of the "managed bankruptcy" Obama crafted a half year later.

Romney sold red meat to the Republican right in early 2012, and fake moderation to the undecided sliver of the electorate in October. Throughout his career, the  'moderation' he evinced was that imposed by the political market in which he was operating -- a legitimate but not sufficient source of moderation. What kind of president he would have been would doubtless have been shaped in large part determined by the Congress that was elected with him.  But it would necessarily have also been determined in large part by the concrete policy promises he made during primary season, since his October pivot substantively erased none of them.  For those promises he must bear the main share of the blame.


  1. This Moderate Mitt Myth goes too far. If Romney was moderate as a governor, it's smoke and mirrors -- the reflection of the Democratic legislature's impact on his policies, and his inclination to say whatever the moment requires to buy the votes that lead to power.

    Romney's a severe conservative, trust him on that.

    Know hope and be thankful we don't have to find out the truth of it through hard experience.

  2. One of Romney's main issues, imo, is that he himself doesn't seem to know who he is. Malleable is definitely the correct word for him. I noted how easy it was for him to be manipulated by his advisers, GOPers in Congress, the GOP base, and/or by the money men who were financing his campaign. For example, when the Blunt Amendment was up for a vote in Congress, Romney opposed it in the AM and supported it in the PM of the same day. The only thing I saw in Romney that did not change was that he wanted to be POTUS. As for Frum, even though he knows Romney was a poor candidate for president, he voted for him anyway, and for this, as far as I'm concerned, his credibility is shot. There is no moderate Mitt. There is only self-serving Mitt who is willing to shake his Etch A Sketch and become whomever/whatever his audience wants him to be.