Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is now the presumptive Republican nominee for President. Having survived the GOP’s circus-like primary process, and won the bare minimum of grudging support (from both voters and party leaders) that is necessary to challenge President Obama, Romney and his campaign are now turning their attention to the general election.
As the campaign becomes a one-on-one affair, one question immediately arises: How can Romney possibly hope to win? Although the economy remains weak, which is always a heavy burden for any incumbent to bear, President Obama remains surprisingly popular. Romney doubtless would like to see the President trailing badly in the polls. Instead, the two are essentially tied even now, before President Obama’s campaign has had the chance to define and attack Romney. That surely says good things for the incumbent’s chances.
Moreover, the Romney campaign is in the difficult position of having inadvertently admitted that it was intending to “shake the Etch-a-Sketch”—a damningly memorable way of saying that Romney had every intention of changing, modifying, or distancing himself from all of the extremist, base-pleasing positions that he took—apparently for cynical reasons—during the last several years.
Of course, everyone knows that general election campaigns focus on different issues than primary campaigns do, but because of Romney’s reputation for opportunistically changing his position on issue after issue, his campaign’s gaffe may well prove to be truly disastrous. Already under scrutiny as an unprincipled chameleon, Romney is now severely limited in what he can do to woo voters who might, say, believe that Planned Parenthood is a force for good in the world—or even just an acceptable presence in our society.
Stumbling Out of the Gate: Romney’s Failed Effort to Court Women by Blaming President Obama for Teacher Layoffs
Romney’s first foray into full-frontal Obama bashing, moreover, was a disaster. Realizing that he faces an enormous “gender gap” (perhaps because of his failure to stand up for groups like Planned Parenthood), the former Massachusetts governor decided to try to make it appear that President Obama was responsible not just for a bad economy, but for an economy that was especially bad for women in particular.
As it turned out, however, the factual basis for Romney’s claims was so distorted and misleading as to be laughable. As I discussed in a recent essay on the Dorf on Law blog, and as various fact-checking organizations have pointed out, Romney was relying on the statistical oddity that women lost jobs later in the recession than men did, with the recession (which began well before Obama took office) ultimately costing many women their jobs. Because those job losses hit the economy after Obama’s inauguration, the Romney team somehow thought that they could sell people on the idea that President Obama caused the economy to be especially bad for women.
Only a few commentators noted, however, the bigger absurdity in Romney’s claim about job losses among women. The bulk of those job losses did not occur among women who happened to work in businesses that were harmed in the latter part of the recession. No, the reason that women have been losing jobs in great numbers since 2009 is that, across the country, schoolteachers are being laid off. Women make up the clear majority of teachers. When teachers are laid off, therefore, it hits women more than men. Here, then, is a disproportionate effect of the recession on women. But it is an effect that Romney apparently applauds and even wants to intensify.
Romney strongly supports the governors who have attacked schoolteachers. He also strongly supports the Republicans in Congress who refuse to provide assistance to states and cities, which would save teachers’ jobs. Thus, Romney is in no position to blame Barack Obama for the plight of teachers; indeed, to see one of the culprits for this crisis, Romney need only look in the mirror.
Even more than the Romney campaign’s more recent gaffe regarding the closed drywall factory in Ohio, therefore, the “Blame women’s job losses on Obama” strategy exposed the Romney campaign’s utter cynicism. For Romney—someone who is correctly perceived as having a complete lack of integrity—this perception of cynicism can only feed on itself.
Overall, therefore, Romney is showing no signs of being able to seize the clear advantages that running against an incumbent in a still-weak economy provide.
Is There a Core Set of Beliefs Guiding Mitt Romney? The Evidence Suggests That There Is No “There” There
All of this analysis, however, is classic horse-race punditry. While such analysis is interesting in its own right, the campaign will play out over many months, and the daily news cycle will grind through many more “drywall gaffes” between now and Election Day. The ultimate question, however, is how Romney would govern if he were actually to win the election. What should we expect if there is a change of power in the White House in January 2013?
To answer that question, one would normally turn first to the candidate’s campaign promises, his record in elective office, and all of the usual sources for guidance about a candidate’s policy views. With Mitt Romney, however, the task is much more complicated. What made his aide’s Etch-a-Sketch comment resonate, after all, was the already-deep suspicion among voters and analysts that Romney was saying anything he needed to say to win the nomination, knowing full well that he planned to say anything he needed to say to win the election—no matter how different his statements needed to be. When a candidate has already changed positions on many issues multiple times, and has earned the nickname “Will Say Anything,” it is not at all easy to predict what that candidate would actually do in office.
Even so, it is possible to imagine that there is a “True Romney” somewhere, waiting to emerge and govern, after he has said and done what is necessary to become President. In this view, Romney is trying to become President because he has a clear view of how to govern the country, but he is simply unwilling to share that vision, for fear of alienating voters.
If a True Romney exists, however, we would need to figure out which Romney is the real thing. Most analysts who have gone down this path have been content to imagine that the views and policies that Romney stood for as governor of Massachusetts represent his true views. All subsequent flip-flops, under this view, were unfortunate and cynical—but necessary—electoral stratagems.
If this were true, then it would mean that Romney is actually a moderate, especially on social issues. Accordingly, his recent embrace of the most retrograde, hard-right conservative policy ideas—regarding social, economic, and foreign policy, and immigration issues—might be ugly, but it would also be temporary. This is exactly why Romney could claim during the primaries to be the most electable candidate. The gist of his message was as follows: ‘No one really believes that I’m as crazy as I’ve sounded during this clown cavalcade, so I can win centrist voters away from Obama.’ But that is a strategy that makes the candidate’s insincerity his core asset.
Even so, large numbers of people appear to believe that the True Romney would be a moderating force against the extremists who have come to dominate his party. Having somewhat centrist leanings, they believe, would cause Romney to govern somewhat more moderately than any of his primary opponents would have governed, had they been elected.
If Romney Does Win, He Will Not Govern As a Moderate: The Costs of Winning at All Costs in the Modern Republican Party
This notion that we can look to Mitt of Massachusetts as the True Romney is, to a certain degree, a story that progressives seem to be telling each other, in order to make a Romney win seem less scary. For example, one of my nephews, a recent college graduate, strongly supports President Obama’s re-election, but has also argued passionately that Romney would be a much less scary President—from the perspective of liberals and progressives—than any of Romney’s vanquished primary foes.
Would that it were so. If anything, there is every reason to believe that a President Romney will govern even more conservatively than he has suggested so far. Indeed, this seems virtually certain, for two related reasons:
First, no one who wins the Presidency wants to be a one-term President, and Romney’s personal ambition is remarkable, even in a political world where self-regard is a prerequisite for success. If Romney wishes to be a two-term President, however, he will have to continue to please his base. And the new reality in Republican politics is that incumbents are no longer given a pass by the extremist base of the party.
Moderate conservatives like Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana are being challenged in primary races, and even rock-solid conservatives like Orrin Hatch are in danger of extinction. (Hatch’s former Utah colleague, Robert Bennett, lost his party’s nomination in 2010, to be replaced by a truer believer.) If Romney is to win again, he must, of course, be the nominee again. A party that could barely stand to nominate the man who passed the prototype of President Obama’s health care plan into law in Massachusetts is not going to give Romney a pass once he is in office.
Second, even if Romney were willing to risk being a one-term President, he would still be under constant pressure from his party. From Election Night onward, Romney will be under scrutiny for any indication that he is indulging his putative moderate impulses. The Republican Party’s radical base now controls the party’s apparatus at all levels of government, meaning that people who will become part of a Romney Administration will be nothing but purists.
With staff and appointees vetted and policed by a party apparatus that has now completed assimilated the extreme views that were once thought to be limited only to the Tea Party-infused fringes, Romney would be in no position to moderate his positions.
What Would Congress Do? Even If Romney Is Elected, and Personally Is Moderate, Extremists Will Still Drive His Presidency
Therefore, if we are to divine what the world would look like under an imagined Romney Administration, the only sensible supposition is that he would propose and attempt to carry out the agenda for which his extremist base fervently hopes. Thus, even if Romney himself is a moderate—a highly dubious proposition, as is the supposition that Romney believes in anything at all—he would govern as an extreme conservative.
What effect would Congress have on Romney’s efforts? It is impossible to imagine that the Republicans could win the Presidency while losing their current majority in the House, so we can assume that the extreme radicalism of the past two years would continue into the 113th Congress, at least on the House side of the Capitol.
The Senate is another story. It is quite imaginable that we could have more than 40 Democrats sitting in the Senate in 2013 and 2014. Given the playbook that the current Republican minority in the Senate has crafted, we could then be looking at another two years or more of policy stasis. If Democrats stuck together, they could filibuster nearly everything Republicans proposed. (Democrats do have a history of crumbling, but I will set aside that possibility here.)
In that situation, the answer to the question, “What would happen under President Romney?” would be: “No major legislation would pass, but the full force of the Executive Branch would be in the hands of a President who is beholden to the most extreme elements of his party.” (Interested readers might want to read my post today on Dorf on Law, where I discuss some of the possible scenarios that we might see with a divided Congress and a Romney presidency.)
The more interesting question, therefore, is what would happen if the Republicans were to pick up 13 of the Senate seats that are currently held by Democrats, thereby giving them a filibuster-proof majority. Then, we would have a government with no moderating forces.
In my next column, I will analyze the economic policies that would emerge from such a political alignment. The short version is: It would not be pretty. The longer version of that story will, however, have to wait until next time.
The next column in this series will appear here on Justia’s Verdict on May 10.