Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Romney Explained

As some of you might have noticed, I haven't been the most prodigious blogger of late… at least not on this site. I’m going to just come clean and admit it. I've been unfaithful to my blog. For the last two months I've been contributing to another site called Law Students for Romney. Since that might strike those of you familiar with my liberal leanings as a little paradoxical, allow me to set the record straight. I am not really a law student for Mitt Romney. I am, however, an avid Romney watcher who was invited by a friend to contribute on a Romney-themed blog. I accepted, and that's that.

While I am admittedly something of a political junkie anyhow, much of my interest in Romney actually stems from the fact that he's a Latter-day Saint. As a result, I've been especially attuned to how he's presenting himself as a candidate and how the media has portrayed him and his faith.

So just what do I think of Romney and his candidacy? Frankly, I'm disappointed. I actually used to like Romney a lot. I even encouraged my sister in Massachusetts to vote for him back in 2002. Politically he was a centrist then; not overly ideological and very pragmatic. Romney was the problem solver. He spoke of compromise and bridging differences, and his rhetoric was overwhelmingly positive. Today, however, he stands in stark contrast to his former self. In less than four years he's become a staunch conservative, shifting his policy positions on a broad range of issues including, but not limited to, campaign finance, affirmative action, taxes, gun control, stem-cell research, gay rights, immigration, bilingual education, and, most well-known, abortion. He's gone from rejecting the "Reagan Republican" label, to embracing it. Now, to make clear, I'm fine with policy shifts in and of themselves. In fact, one of my criticisms of the current administration has been its stubborn resistance to change. Flexibility can be a good thing sometimes, but in Romney's case, the timing of his many position shifts raises the specter of political expediency. Add to this the hard line Romney's begun to take on important issues like immigration, foreign policy, economics, and the environment, and, for me, his candidacy really begins to lose his luster.

Chuck Todd, the incoming political director for NBC News, captures my feelings well in a recent article he wrote about Romney and John Edwards' political shifts:

[Romney] is widely respected in the business community as someone who knows how to tackle a problem, and he seems to have applied this mindset to his ideology. Technically, he's doing all the things that should please the right and make himself more palatable to conservatives.

But the mistake Romney appears to be making is that as he's fixed all the little problems with the sale of his product (in this case, himself) to niche markets, he's done serious damage to the overall brand of what he represented previously.

Romney's best traits, arguably, are the outsider tag and his problem-solving skills. But he's so bogged down in proving his bona-fides to conservatives that questions about his overall authenticity are now damaging his reputation as an outsider and a problem-solver. By getting into bed with many conservative elites, is he no longer an outsider? He's literally checking every box (NRA membership? Check; Heritage Foundation contribution? Check; and so on). The more he plays the flip-flopper and finger-in-the-wind, the less his best traits come through.

It's still early, but both Edwards and Romney need to recognize that if they lose the personal connection that once made them seem like naturals, it won't matter how well they answer the NRA or SEIU questionnaires. Voters will punish the candidates for losing touch with the people they most need to stay in touch with -- themselves.

Even more disconcerting to me is the rhetoric that has accompanied Romney's conservative turn. Rather than elevating the debate and focusing on substantive issues, Romney has adopted the hyperbole of the far right. In several of the speeches and interviews I've seen over the past few months, he's sought to demonize the left with broad, over-reaching generalizations on values, security, and economic policy. A recently leaked internal campaign document of Romney's lists France, Massachusetts, liberalism, and "Hollywood values" as "bogeymen" he intends to target. The document also lays out how Romney plans criticize the European Union for wanting to "drag America down to Europe's standards." In his speeches, Romney all too often caricatures those with whom he disagrees, erecting strawmen out of targets like France, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Democrats, and the so-called "liberal media," which he easily knocks down for cheap applause. In the Republican primary campaign, he’s also begun to fight a somewhat dirty campaign, going so far as to unapologetically misrepresent the positions of his competitors at times.

I've never been a fan of partisan warfare, but I recognize that the realities of running a presidential campaign require a certain amount of stereotyping, generalizing and even mudslinging. That said, as I’ve listened to Romney, I've found myself much more comfortable with the rhetoric of several of the other candidates on both sides of the aisle. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Bill Richardson, and especially Barack Obama have, on the whole, run campaigns that pander less and maintain a more elevated political discourse than Romney's (whether this continues to hold true remains to be seen, but it's something I hope the candidates continue to strive for).

The worst part for me is that I think Romney had the potential to be a great candidate. I believed his executive experience and his pragmatic approach set him apart as someone who could really affect positive change in Washington. Now I feel like Romney is becoming just another ideologue who grandstands for the party base. My father, a political scientist, thinks that Romney believes it is the only way he has a chance with religious conservatives who are already wary of his Mormon faith. Perhaps Romney is just being "pragmatic" in how he's choosing to run his campaign, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about his candidacy. I vigorously defend Romney when his faith is attacked, but I have a hard time defending many of his policy shifts. He’s boxed himself in on a whole variety of issues. I don’t think it’s possible for him to go back to being the pragmatist that he was anymore without sacrificing all of the credibility he’s attempted to build with this rightward shift in the first place.