Candidate Analysis: Mitt Romney

Last Friday’s announcement of Mitt Romney’s bid to be the Republican presidential candidate, though decidedly later than his competition, was hailed for its poignant timing and strategic emphasis on economic issues. As with the April 11th announcement of his exploratory committee, Romney chose New Hampshire as his podium, suggesting that The Granite State and its primary may be viewed by his company as an early strategic stronghold to be conquered. As governor of neighboring Massachusetts, Romney is experienced in the ways of New England conservatives. Though appearing to lead with his strong hand, there may well be formidable considerations at work for Romney and his team as they set out on the road to the Republican primary, considerations which could make that road a great deal steeper when he branches out to the Midwest and the Iowa caucus in February of next year. Where, a decade ago, a man like Mitt Romney may have been the ideal picture of a victorious Republican candidate, today that party has drastically changed and Romney remains the centrist odd-man-out in an ever-polarizing American political climate.
At first glance, Mitt Romney commands one definitive edge over all other Republican hopefuls in the race to 2012: a resume strong in inter-party diplomacy and consensus-building that will be attractive to the country’s very sizable moderate constituency. Romney’s have a long history of conservative victories in otherwise liberal strongholds. Mitt’s father George achieved such a feat in the heart of union power, Michigan, during the 1960s. His son, with a platform quite reminiscent of George’s, served as a Republican governor of Massachusetts from 2002 to 2006, when he chose not to pursue re-election in order to enter the 2008 presidential primary. Though appearances would lend themselves to the assumption that Mitt Romney’s governorship of a traditionally Democratic state is indicative of his ability to “cross the aisle”, it is worth noting that, for Romney, the aisle seems to be a rather meager obstacle to traverse. He is the direct product of the political Great Moderation that mired our nation for the past several decades, with parties leaving little but the red and blue of their banners to assist voters in telling them apart. In the era of Democratic social welfare programs versus Republican social welfare programs, it was deal-makers like Romney who stood out as men who could set aside ideology to produce tangible political results. In today’s increasingly ideological environment, where voters are growing more concerned with the nature of those results than merely their having been realized, Romney’s pragmatism may be a thing of the past and a red flag to the proponents of a small government— whether Tea Party, libertarian, or capitalist.
To a conservative audience in 1994, when Romney challenged Ted Kennedy for his seat in the US Senate, an endorsement of moderate redistributive social welfare programs may have been a viable political stance. Indeed, even after his term as governor and the passage of his favored Massachusetts Health Care Reform legislation, he evidently perceived the program to have given him such political clout as to eliminate any advantage which a Democratic presidential candidate might enjoy on such issues. As Romney observed to Bloomberg News upon signing the bill, “Issues which have long been the province of the Democratic Party to claim as their own will increasingly move to the Republican side of the aisle.”# Such a comment would not have appeared unpractical in that period— while most would have previously affiliated the universal health care initiative with Hillary Clinton’s efforts, Republican senator and 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole once proposed his own alternative model.
A mere five years later, the profoundly divergent course which American politics has taken makes that statement almost laughable. In light of the overwhelming conservative backlash against President Obama’s health care legislation (which used Romney’s as a model) and particularly its individual mandate policy (which Romney boldly touted in the Massachusetts version), the former governor has accordingly shied from the topic, emphasizing a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do policy that persists in heralding the Massachusetts bill as a victory while insisting that, if elected, he would provide waivers to all fifty states. However, his suggestion of using block grants for Medicaid and federal uncompensated care funds to encourage state innovation indicates that, even when seemingly allied with the newly emboldened small-government sector in American conservatism, he still fails to understand the principles at the base of their advocacy.
Romney has seemingly set the tone for his campaign as being firmly grounded in a criticism of President Obama’s economic policy and the failure of the current administration to bring about a viable recovery. Due to the now near-irrelevance of social issues, the bipartisan intellectual default on Afghanistan and Iraq, and Romney’s mixed position of having condoned American intervention in Libya while condemning President Obama‘s means of conducting it, the economy remains both a strong-suit and a safe-zone for the candidate. He no doubt intends to emphasize his extensive executive background and successes as a corporate leader, qualities which he has in spades. Of the candidates currently running, perhaps only Herman Cain could match Romney in private-sector experience. Were he to succeed, Romney would be only the second US president to hold an MBA (the first being George W. Bush), a firm selling point to a nation in the grips of a prolonged economic crisis. It is thus worthwhile to consider his previous experience as a public executive and what results were attained in his time as governor of Massachusetts. Romney is no stranger to economic crises. When he entered his governorship, Massachusetts was between two and three billion dollars in debt. By the time he left office, he is wont to remind voters, the debt was eliminated. He further claims a billion dollar surplus at the time of his departure. Lastly, he asserts that the feat of governance was achieved without borrowing or raising taxes.
There are several problems with this story. First is the claim of the billion dollar surplus. This assertion has been challenged and roundly rejected by various parties, perhaps most notably the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, whose president Michael Widmer points out that the state comptroller’s official report of $594 million (already nowhere near $1b erroneously included $150 million by pushing off the state’s Medicaid bills until the next fiscal year. Furthermore, Widmer rejects the governor’s claim that $1b was cut in waste, finding less than 1/10th of that number among actual cuts made.#
While these matters are apparently disputable and resolvable only by exhaustive analysis by accountants and policy experts, what is apparent even to the layman is the blatant evasion of which Romney is guilty in his claims to have solved the crisis without borrowing or raising taxes. Romney’s means of alleviating a severe debt, initiating a vastly expansive social welfare program in the form of RomneyCare, and all the while claiming not to have raised taxes rested on the creation of a drastic program of government fee-creation, instituting 33 new fees for licenses and services along with dramatic increases in 57 pre-existing fees.# Gun owners, for instance, were severely affected: the price to register a handgun tripled, along with increases in the cost of firearm identification cards, applications for a license to carry, and gun dealer fees. Romney asserted that he saw fees and taxes differently, that taxes affected everyone more broadly, where fees applied only to certain parties who pursued voluntary activities— activities such as marriage, maintaining a professional license to practice, or being legally registered as blind and receiving appropriate photo ID cards.
Needless to say, the measures taken in order to make the claim of having never increased taxes were extreme. The notion of making any considerable downsizes to executive departments was rejected. Finally, a two-cent-per-gallon “fee” was instituted on the sale of gasoline, presumably for the remedy of pollution caused by underground fuel tanks throughout the state. Clearly a tax, the measure, generating $60m per year for a $20m solution, would produce three times the revenue required— netting the state a healthy gain at the expense of those citizens who so voluntarily chose to drive to work to make their livings. Governor Romney definitively displayed his failure to understand the principle that the world— Massachusetts included— moves by voluntary action. Men and women start businesses by their voluntary action. But when government so extends its purview as to afford complimentary healthcare and social welfare services to some while diminishing the ability of others to make their livings, there ultimately ceases to be those volunteers. When the government, state or federal, attempts to meet redistributive ends by closing the “loopholes” (write-offs) afforded small businesses, as Romney’s administration did at the expense of their owners, it is irrational to expect them to endure as-is indefinitely. When government mandates that one be licensed or permitted to do business, one establishes the principle that men work and sustain their lives by permission of government and not by right.
In the end, some will ask, did Romney’s measures not forego a far worse reality that could have transpired were the debt not eliminated? Such inquirers should direct their curiosities to Romney’s successor as governor, Deval Patrick, who, upon taking office, stated that if Romney’s established service levels were to persist as laid out, the state would face another $1b deficit in a year‘s time.
By that point, having chosen not to pursue re-election as governor, Romney was well on his way to being a contender in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. As a candidate, he would take as moderate a stand on taxes as one could ask for. On the idea of a fair tax, he gave a nominal endorsement, saying “that has a lot of positive features associated with it and, boy, I’d like to emulate some of those” (emphasis mine). Not necessarily an advocate, but willing enough to appease its strong and growing support base. He advocated a tax exemption on savings, though only for people of “middle incomes” and he charismatically averted specifics in a way which has become a hallmark for the candidate in the past, but which will not hold him for long in what looks to be a very substantive campaign year to come. As for the United States’ astronomical corporate tax rates (the second highest in the world next to Japan), he again sticks to the middle road: “we don’t have to be the lowest, but I don’t want us to be the highest.”#
On Middle East policy, he advocated the idea of a “Special Partnership Force” of Army Special Forces and American intelligence operatives to “build national institutions of stability and freedom, and to promote the rule of law and human rights.” In a stance as rife with expansionary statism as any yet heard, he then competed with John Edwards over the claim to having originated a plan to establish a sort of international welfare system for Arab nations, conceiving of it as a “new type of Marshall Plan” that would “assemble resources from developed nations to work to assure that threatened Islamic states had public schools, not Wahhabi madrassas, micro-credit and banking, the rule of law, human rights, basic healthcare, and competitive economic policies.”# By Romney’s conception, not only is it our duty to secure stability, freedom, law, human rights, banking, education, and healthcare for the nations in which our enemies hide in plain sight— we must ensure their ability to compete economically as well.
Taking his various statements and policies collectively, one beings to get a sense for Romney as a candidate and, potentially, as a president. The image is less than satisfying: a die-hard moderate who abstains from clearly defined goals and policies until the last final moment when either the stated views of his opposition give him something to oppose or the popular current of his party defines his direction. One thing, however, is clear: Mitt Romney is not leading this dance, not setting the pace the way that a winning candidate does by defining the issues, providing solutions, garnering support, and pursuing victory. Instead, in an era when Republicans are evolving or dying off, Mitt Romney is learning that the political tactics of pragmatic palm-pressing that marked the last decades of the twentieth century appear now to be a house built on sand. The new course of the American Right and its reconstitution upon the principles of limited government and individual rights would, I fear, be severely undermined by the election of a president of their own party so willing to compromise those values for the mere appearance of progress. Romney appears quietly aware of the discrepancy between his beliefs and the new direction of his party, but expects— or hopes— that it is merely a passing trend to be corrected when the economy improves. As a candidate, he thoroughly maintains the trappings of eligibility, but as a leader he lacks the requisite philosophical grounding to turn the nation around. Clear on criticism, vague on alternatives, his efforts to oppose President Obama are beset by his own contradictions and unarticulated ideals. Unfortunate though the fact may be for his presidential prospects, the Republican party seems to have surpassed candidates like him. Whether it will stay that course and remain true to principle is a question to be answered over the course of years to come, but its first test may well lie in the candidacy of Mitt Romney and the 2012 Republican primaries.


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