The almost-right choice
Newsflash to the media: Mitt Romney is not a bad guy.
There’s an element of gamesmanship in all political races: Everybody wants to read a news story where their political opponent comes off not just as a bad choice for office, but a bad person in general. In a process where policy differences between candidates can be intricate and vague, it’s easier and more digestible to create a villain who your preferred candidate can square up against. It’s why attack ads are voiced by the actor from every horror movie trailer, and it’s why both presidential campaigns are scrabbling for the high ground in the dog wars. For Romney, though, it’s getting a little excessive — the blogospheric swirl surrounding recent revelations has the former Massachusetts governor all but twirling his mustache. (I would include Obama as a victim, too, but the man has been accused of cartoonish levels of evil so many times it’s not even worth a mention at this point.) But the real tragedy for the news-consuming American populace is that this spectacle obscures all the real, legitimate reasons Mitt Romney would be a bad choice for president.
First things first: Mitt Romney is qualified. Highly qualified. He has considerable experience working with the private sector from his time at Bain Capital, and as the Republican governor of a liberal state, he knows how to interact with an oppositional legislature. The man has convictions — he is a moderate, plain and simple. He did not invent being red in a blue place, and were he all that opposed to the direction of the Bay State during his term he would have tried to strong-arm an agenda like other governors have happily done. He is not a flip-flopper; he is accommodating, willing to work others’ opinions into his own view.
And those traits would absolutely wreck a Romney White House. The Etch-a-Sketch candidate has worked himself into an ideological corner, camouflaging his cooperative past with forced-sounding rhetoric. Assuming he pulls it off, and Governor Romney becomes President Romney, that political bind won’t loosen — it’s going to be the same game for higher stakes. The 2012 races will be close and ugly, but when the dust settles, especially in Congress, the playing field will probably look the same. That means the man taking the oath of office in January will be dealing with a slightly Democratic Senate and a somewhat Republican House, a lineup that necessitates compromise.
The problem, though, is that even if President Romney wanted to compromise, the establishment wouldn’t let him. The end goal of today’s partisan environment is the hat trick, the Triple Crown: control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency, allowing each party to roll out their legislative big guns. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Iraq War are two recent legacies of this achievement. For his first two years in office — the time during which most presidents get things done — President Romney would be instructed to wage partisan war in hopes that the party wins the Senate in 2014. And Romney would comply. The Republican institution is already nervous about his conservative credentials, and a protracted ideological fight with party leadership (and donors) would lead to an internal civil war that would spawn a primary challenge in the long run and a confused policy direction in the short run.
In another world, Mitt Romney would be a good, moderate choice for a moderate constituency trying to inspire moderate debate over real, serious problems. But centrist is a bad word now, and Romney is going to have to sell his soul just for the opportunity to get anything done. That is the circular genius of partisanship — reasonable people convince themselves they will compromise after they beat the other team, and politicians tear the country up for the chance to be the benign healer. Mitt Romney is a principled man, but if he wins the office with his current play, then those principles lose.
photo of Mitt Romney by Gage Skidmore