David Frum at Frum Forum:
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.
Mickey Kaus at Newsweek
I hear similar things from Romney supporters (or people trying to convince themselves to be Romney supporters) with remarkable frequency. 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. (He’s no Palin, is the implication …) Even when he’s mid-pander, you always know that he knows that it’s all just a freak show, and you can always sense that he’d rather be at a policy seminar somewhere, instead of just forking red meat. 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!
This is an … unusual argument. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong: 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.
Frum responds to Douthat:
I sometimes imagine that Romney approaches politics in the same spirit that the CEO of Darden Restaurants approaches cuisine. Darden owns Olive Garden, Longhorn steakhouses, and Red Lobster among other chains. Now suppose that Darden’s data show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining. Suppose they convert some of their Longhorn outlets to Olive Gardens. Is that “flip-flopping”? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?
Likewise, the “pro-choice” concept met public demand so long as Romney Inc. was a Boston-based senatorship and governorship-seeking enterprise. But now Romney Inc. is expanding to a national brand, with important new growth opportunities in Iowa and South Carolina. A new concept is accordingly required to serve these new markets. Again: this is not flip-flopping. It is customer service.
You may say: But what does Romney think on the inside? Which of his positions is the “real” Romney? I’d answer that question with another question. Suppose an Olive Garden customer returns to the kitchen a plate of fettuccine alfredo, complaining the pasta is overcooked. What should the manager do? Say “I disagree”? Explain that it’s a core conviction to cook pasta to a certain specified number of minutes and seconds, and if the customer doesn’t like it, she’s welcome to take her patronage elsewhere? No! It doesn’t matter what the manager “really” thinks. What matters is satisfying each and every customer who walks through the door to the very best of the manager’s ability.
Ross Douthat fails to understand that meeting customer expectations is itself a principle!
I enjoyed this analogy, but it doesn’t work. The presidency carries a four-year lock-in, while the Olive Garden doesn’t. Put it this way: If going to the Olive Garden meant only eating at the Olive Garden for the next four years, it’d be a real problem if they lured you in with pasta and breadsticks and then, three months later, turned the place into a hookah bar that served only salmon burgers. Some people might find that to be an improvement, and some people might not, but that’s not the point: A fishy hookah bar isn’t what you signed up for.
Frum is right that customer service can be a principle in and of itself. And I’d be really interested to see a presidential candidate promise to better represent the people by explicitly using polls to steer his or her presidency. But that’s not what Romney is promising. He’s promising to do certain things, and uphold certain values, when in office. If he’s lying about that, it’s not customer service. It’s betrayal yoked to a four-year contract.
Ezra Klein points out some problems with this line of thought. But I think the real issue here has to do with character. The executives of Darden Restaurants are basically trying to make money. And so are the owners of the firm. And that’s fine. Most of us aren’t so distressed by the idea that the firm is, on some level, a soulless money-making machine. But on this view, Romney is . . . what? A soulless power-seeking machine?
To a large extent our political system is already biased toward promoting power-crazed sociopaths into positions of authority. The public’s aversion to people who appear to have this quality to a greater extent than other high-profile politicians seems very understandable to me. Meanwhile, at the end of the day Ross Douthat is right to say that this still leaves you necessarily puzzled by the question of what a Romney Administration would actually do. Is it so crazy for political activists and pundits to be curious about this?
Something that helps make sense of Romney’s positioning is its largely reactive quality. Despite his past claims that he understands leadership, he never leads on any issue. During the presidential campaign, Romney endorsed granting Detroit a huge subsidy when he thought it might help him in the Michigan primary. Later the same year, he fiercely opposed bailing out Detroit, because he perceived that support for the auto industry was not useful to him. He supported the TARP when that was the default Republican leadership position to take, and has since become a fierce critic of the management of the TARP once he realized that being identified as pro-TARP was politically toxic. The candidate who famously said that he “liked mandates” and has endorsed a mandate as the “conservative position” when he wanted to brag about his achievements cannot abide the individual mandate when it positions him against the health care bill. In other words, he has the ability to position himself for short-term political advantage rather well, but seems to have no notion of how to take one position–whether he “really” believes it or not–and stand by it for more than a year or so if there is some brief advantage to be had in changing positions in the meantime. This is what creates the impression that he has no enduring goal or vision other than the acquisition of political office and influence. All the while, he has the insufferable habit of embracing each and every new position with the zeal of a convert, convinced that he now has the moral authority to denounce anyone who disagrees, and then casually abandoning or neglecting the issue when something else shiny catches his attention.
My guess is that Romney doesn’t “really” have a stand on any of these issues, but what is annoying is not simply Romney’s lack of principle. Many and possibly most politicians are not that deeply committed to principles, and that’s to be expected, but Romney attaches a degree of smugness and sanctimony to the exercise that is genuinely obnoxious. What should be bothersome to his supporters is that his pandering is so impermanent and fleeting that he inspires no confidence that he will be in the same place a year or two from now. Very simply, he can’t be counted on and can’t be trusted.
Jonathan Cohn at TNR:
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.”
Mori Dinauer at Tapped:
I think Ross Douthat is essentially correct when he says that Mitt Romney‘s policy dexterity is so extreme that it renders judgment on his hypothetical presidential administration all but futile. I used to think that because Romney will bend in any direction he could be reasoned with, and thus could be a reasonable president. Not any more. The fact that we have no idea what he would do strongly suggests that he is no longer qualified for the office in the first place.
Mitt, you old chameleon, you