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A Misguided Appeal For A “Closeted Moderate” Mitt

Nicholas Kristof presents an argument today that I’ve heard before, but which I struggle to understand. As the NYT columnist sees it, Mitt Romney was a “moderate and pragmatic governor,” who, his metamorphoses notwithstanding, may flip “back to his old self” in 2013.

The reassuring thing about Mitt Romney is that for most of his life he probably wouldn’t have voted for today’s Mitt Romney. […]

If we do see, as I expect we will, a reversion in the direction of the Massachusetts Romney, that’s a flip we should celebrate. Until the Republican primaries sucked him into its vortex, he was a pragmatist and policy wonk rather similar to Bill Clinton and President Obama but more conservative. (Clinton described Romney to me as having done “a very good job” in Massachusetts.) Romney was much closer to George H.W. Bush than to George W. Bush.

Kristof says we should “expect” this current version of Romney to revert back to a previous version. I think this is wildly misguided.

The premise here is that the Romney we see running for president is a ridiculous phony. Sure, he’s saying reckless right-wing things, he’s making irresponsible right-wing promises, and he’s completely rejected any sensible positions he once held, but it’s just an act to get elected. Voters should simply pay no attention to what Romney is saying, doing, proposing, and promising, since none this is sincere anyway.

This isn’t a criticism levied by Romney’s detractors; this is a defense offered by Romney’s tacit supporters.

It’s also incoherent.

To accept the premise of the argument, a voter would have to believe that every word out of Romney’s mouth for the last five years — about his policy agenda, worldview, and priorities — has been a deliberate scam. As part of an elaborate scheme to mislead the American public, Romney has chosen to become a closeted moderate. The lie will end and the centrist will reemerge just as soon as the electorate has put the presidency in his hands.

What those making this argument are actually proposing is an incredible gamble with the nation’s future. Sure, Romney says he’ll take a far-right approach to everything from the economy to entitlements, foreign policy to the judiciary, but perhaps we’re witnessing a half-decade-long ruse and everything will turn out fine.

That’s quite a risk with so much on the line.

Let me give Jonathan Bernstein’s piece in the new print issue another plug. The point of the article is important: what candidates say they’ll do is generally what they will do if elected.

Someone might want to send a copy to Nicholas Kristof.


By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, January 5, 2012

January 6, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Mitt Romney Ever Flip Back Again?

The deflating open secret of the Iowa caucuses is that they don’t matter. Mitt Romney has won the Republican nomination by default. He was, and remains, wildly vulnerable to a conservative challenger. But the challenger needed to clear a modest threshold: having a national organization, enough money to engage in advertising wars, and the ability to recite standard party dogma in the form of complete sentences. Rick Perry had the first two but fell woefully short of the third. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum could pass the third but not the first two.

Remarkably, the many Republicans who could have beaten Romney all decided not to enter the race or, in the case of Tim Pawlenty, dropped out prematurely. The challengers to Romney devoted all their energies to attacking each other – not a single attack ad against Romney even aired in Iowa. None of his many, enormous vulnerabilities has been exploited. The profusely bleeding, one-armed man managed to swim through shark-infested waters because most of the sharks drowned or decided either to eat each other instead of him.

But what kind of president would Romney be?

George Packer, in a terrific column about the casual acceptance of hysterical charges in the GOP, argues that Romney has crossed a threshold of wingnuttery from which he can never return:

It would be a mistake, though, to believe that, long after Iowa, once the horse race is over, and if he’s elected, Romney could suddenly flip a switch, clear the air of the toxicity left behind by the Republican field, and return to being a cautious centrist whose most reassuring quality is his lack of principles. His party wouldn’t let him; and, after all, how a candidate runs shapes how a President governs. In politics, once a sellout, always a sellout; once a thug, always a thug.

I agree with Packer’s conclusion but not his reasoning. There is actually a pretty close analogue to Romney: George H.W. Bush. The scion of a moderate, Establishment Republican, Bush abandoned his views on abortion and supply-side economics in order to curry favor with a party moving right, and was elected president by running a dishonest and viciously demagogic campaign. Once in office, Bush fulfilled the fears of his conservative critics by governing as a real moderate. The campaign did not shape the presidency.

The difference is that Bush faced a Democratic Congress. If faced with similar circumstances, we would probably see the old Massachusetts Romney reemerge. But, if elected, he is far more likely to enjoy a Republican Congress. An interesting theme in the conservative commentary today is that Republicans, while not thrilled about Romney, truly seem to believe that he will serve as a faithful vessel for the Party’s agenda. Here is Republican member of Congress Tom Cole:

“The real division in the GOP these days is not between moderates and conservatives. It is between pragmatists and ideologues. That same division plays itself out almost every day in the House and Senate GOP Conferences,” Cole continued. “The next GOP president will be forced to govern as a conservative to maintain the support of the GOP rank and file and its caucuses in both the House and Senate. Anyone who thinks we are going to nominate an Eisenhower, Nixon or Ford is out of touch with the GOP electorate. And any GOP politician who believes he can govern from the White House as anything other than a conservative is delusional.”

This is almost surely correct. A President Romney would have little leeway to push a GOP Congress to the center, and he has pledged himself to fulfill the agenda that the Party has already determined. Former Bush administration Minister of Propaganda Pete Wehner echoes, “This year, it seems to me, the party is the sun and the candidates are the planets … They are trying to prove to primary voters that they are reliable and trustworthy when it comes to the basic platform of the GOP.”

It is surely clear that Romney’s apparent victory was obtained by erasing every last vestige of his old and (I believe, though I can’t be sure) authentic self. At this moment hardly anybody believes that his conversion was actually authentic. The support for him, such as it is, is simply a combination of disqualifying rivals and the assumption that the Party will continue to own him in office.


By: Jonathan Chait, Daily Intel, January 3, 2012

January 4, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mitt Antoinette: The Audacity Of The Rich

It’s a campaign tactic that’s been around for a long while, but Mitt Romney seems eager to perfect it: identify the candidate’s most damaging flaws, then project those flaws onto the candidate’s rivals. This week offered a classic example.

Mitt Romney on Thursday sought to portray President Barack Obama as out of touch with the struggles of everyday Americans — a charge he himself has often faced — by comparing the president to a former French queen who was overthrown during the French Revolution.

“When the president’s characterization of our economy was, ‘It could be worse,’ it reminded me of Marie Antoinette: ‘Let them eat cake,’” Romney said, referring to the infamously dismissive remark toward the poor attributed to the queen.

As Jon Chait noted, this is “in keeping with his favorite method of deflecting attacks.”

Romney anticipates his greatest vulnerability, then peremptorily lobs the charge against his adversary. That way, when his opponent uses the charge it’s repetitive.

Romney first deployed this technique against New Gingrich. He has deployed a furious assault against what was briefly his chief adversary, painting him as a flip-flopper who has wavered on abortion and even supported health care reform in Massachusetts. Gingrich was left stammering helplessly in response. After sifting through the charges and counter-charges, all the Republican voters knew was that you had two candidates accusing each other of flip-flopping and trying to help sick people get health insurance. The natural next step is to open his general election campaign by portraying Obama as a callous aristocrat.

At this point, anything’s possible.

It takes quite a bit of chutzpah for any candidate to campaign this way. For crying out loud, Romney accused Gingrich of taking both sides of every issue and being an unreliable champion of far-right causes. How does one even intellectually process something like this? Is it the result of a pathological lack of self-awareness, an assumption that voters are idiots, the belief that the media is hopelessly incompetent, or some combination of all of them?

But this Marie Antoinette line is arguably even more beautiful. Romney — who, by the way, speaks fluent French and spent nearly three years in France — amassed an enormous fortune thanks to a vulture-capitalist firm known for breaking apart companies and firing their American workforces. Despite a quarter-billion in the bank, and several mansions (one of which he intends to quadruple in size), Romney is running on a campaign platform that includes slashing public investments that benefit working families (including the total elimination of funding for Planned Parenthood), massive tax breaks for the very wealthy, repealing safeguards that protect the public from Wall Street recklessness, and calling for more foreclosures on those American families struggling to keep their homes.

Two weeks ago, Romney told PBS he’d like to see President Obama stop criticizing “Wall Street” and “insurance company executives” altogether. Yesterday, he debated whether he meets the “classical” definition of “a Wall Street guy.”

Romney thinks it’s funny to joke about being unemployed; he finds it inconvenient when he doesn’t have anything smaller than a $100 bill in his wallet while on the campaign trail; he doesn’t blink when offering to make a $10,000 bet; and he considers a $1,500 a year tax cut for the typical middle-class family to be a meaningless “band aid.”

This guy wants to compare Barack Obama to Marie Antoinette?

If votes are awarded on the basis of audacity, Romney should go ahead and start drafting his inaugural address.


By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, December 31, 2011

December 31, 2011 Posted by | Election 2012, Voters | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mitt Romney Reverses Position on Iraq

In an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd today, Mitt Romney asserts that “of course” invading Iraq was a bad idea now that we know Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. (“If we knew at the time of our entry into Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction, if somehow we had been given that information, obviously we would not have gone in.”) Four years ago, Romney said just the opposite. (“It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now.”)

I can’t think of any important substantive facts that have changed between now and then that would lead Romney to alter his opinion. Indeed, Iraq is probably more stable than it was, and it’s now easier to justify invading on non-WMD grounds than it was before.

What’s changed is that Iraq is no longer so central to the Republican id. Four years ago, a Republican had to defend the Iraq war in order to defend George W. Bush. To conclude that the invasion was a mistake would be to indict Bush of a massive blunder, to subvert the commander of the War on Terror, to give in to the liberals. The importance of the issue has now receded to the point where Romney can casually take the completely opposite position without antagonizing any significant part of his coalition.

The thing I’ve always found endearing and (to some degree) comforting about Mitt Romney is that his flip-flops betray pure contempt for the Republican base. He treats them like angry children, and their pet issues as emotionally driven symbols of cultural division rather than as serious positions. Four years ago, conservatives were enraged that liberals would question Bush’s handling of foreign policy, so Romney was defending the decision to go to war and promising to “double Guantanamo.” (It made zero sense as a policy position and could be understood only as an expression of culture-war solidarity.) Likewise, conservatives are now outraged over Obamacare, so Romney promises to repeal Obamacare.

Nothing about Romney’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the right hint even slightly of genuine conversion. It is patronizing appeasement. Of course, none of this tells us the really crucial thing, which is what promises Romney would actually keep if elected. But at least it offers the modest comfort that Romney knows better.

By: Jonathan Chait, Daily Intel, December 21, 2011

December 22, 2011 Posted by | Election 2012, Republicans | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mitt Romney’s Healthcare Competence Called Into Question

The conventional wisdom keeps telling me that Mitt Romney, for all his many faults (chronic dishonesty, incessant flip-flopping, cowardice, etc.), is at least a smart guy who cares about policy. Romney may lack integrity, we’re told, but at least he’s a vaguely technocratic wonk.

Except, I’m not at all convinced this guy is any smarter than his hapless Republican rivals. Romney speaks in complete sentences, which makes him look like a genius compared to Rick Perry, but consider some of the things the former governor says about his understanding of public policy. Here’s a gem from Iowa earlier today:

“Medicaid. You wonder what Medicaid is; those who aren’t into all this government stuff. You know, I have to admit, I didn’t know the differences between all these things until I got into government. Then I got into it and I understood that Medicaid is the health care program for the poor, by and large.”

I see. So, Mitt Romney, despite two degrees from Harvard, learned what Medicaid is when he became governor in 2002. He was 55 years old at the time.

Before he “got into government” and discovered what Medicaid is, Romney helped run a health company, which relied heavily on funding from — you  guessed it — Medicare and Medicaid. What’s more, in his book, Romney boasts about having been a health care consultant, where he developed an expertise in how to deal with entitlements.

But he didn’t know what Medicaid was until he got into government?

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. “Romney didn’t mean what he said this morning,” you’re going to tell me. “He was only saying he didn’t understand Medicaid so that he could pretend to relate to the people in the audience. This wasn’t ignorance; it was pandering.”

Perhaps. I can’t say with certainty what Romney is ignorant of, and what he only pretends to be ignorant of.

But if this is the accurate explanation, let’s appreciate a disconcerting fact: Romney is so desperate to appear folksy, he’s willing to lie about his lack of awareness to get people to relate to him. And that’s just sad.

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, December 16, 2011

December 17, 2011 Posted by | Election 2012, Health Care | , , , , | Leave a comment

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