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.

12 comments:

Mutt said...

While I also find Romney's shift troubling, there is a distinction between what makes a good candidate and what makes a good president (anyone heard of George Bush?). Romney already has the skills, I believe, to be an exceptional leader as president. However, without jumping further to the right he would not be a very good candidate for the Republican party. The Republican party votes in blocks based largely on right wing issues. It's a sad reality that a successful Republican candidate must properly place himself to the right in order to gain the nomination and then win the election. Romney is doing and saying the right things at the right time to the right people to win the party and those loyal blocks of votes. It's all politics.
Democratic candidates for some reason are blind to this reality, they need to focus on electable candidates not on good leaders or party favorites such as Obama and Hillary. They need to follow their recent success to have an electable candidate: a handsome moderate Southerner like Bill & Jimmy. John Edwards, realistically, is the only democrat with a chance to win the election. Even during a troubled time John Kerry (a party favorite and reasonably good politician) could not beat a wounded George W. Even plastic Al Gore got more votes than Kerry when Bush wasn't being hounded with a troubled administration and war. Why? Kerry is not handsome (he looks like an Ent from the Lord of the Rings), not moderate (as if!), and clearly not a southerner (Damn Yankee!).
Despite all the issues in the Republican party and especially with the war. The democrats will have a tough time trying to win an election with Hillary or Obama, despite the qualities that make them good leaders.
For a party, first and foremost it's all about getting someone, anyone (even George W.) into the office. That's why Romney is moving so far to the right. He will get the nomination and then will successfully face a liberal democrat, unless the democrats pull their heads out and do the smart but unlikely thing by nominating John Edwards.

Marc said...

I acknowledged in my post that I thought Romney had tremendous potential, but I guess I question whether a candidate must adopt troubling rhetoric and the "hard" party line on all issues. When a once moderate candidate like Romney does so, I think he comes off as a chameleon. I have trouble ever listening to Romney anymore without wondering whether he's saying what he thinks people want to hear or what he really believes. Most of the other GOP candidates don't have that problem in my mind. Interestingly enough, both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are out of step with the GOP on several issues respectively, but both have tremendous leads on Mitt Romney in every poll of likely GOP primary voters.

At the end of the day, among Republican candidates, I have much more respect for John McCain than Mitt Romney. McCain has held a much more principled line on issues like immigration, detainee treatment, campaign finance, and the environment, among others, even though his positions may cost him votes among the GOP electorate.

While I think Romney is a very serious contender, I would be very surprised to see him get the nomination. I think you underestimate the opposition he is going to face among religious conservatives. Some of them may be playing nice now, but when it comes to voting for an active Mormon, I think more of a great deal of them are going to have serious problems with it. Mark my words, the Republican primaries in southern states will get ugly with vitriolic attacks on Romney's Mormonism (remember those "phone surveys" and fliers spreading nasty rumors that McCain had an illegitimate black child back in 2000? They sank his primary bid in South Carolina). Just look at the uproar that Romney giving the commencement speech at Regent University next month is causing.

I disagree with you on Edwards. In my mind he struggles with some of the same credibility problems as Romney (though to a lesser degree). I think both Barack Obama and Bill Richardson are very compelling candidates. Regardless of who the Democrats nominate, the Republicans are very likely to have Iraq as a noose around their necks which will give the Democrats an almost insurmountable point spread in my mind.

PS - I'm curious as to when the neo-conservative foreign policy talking points that Romney has adopted became the mainstream Republican position. What about all the famed Republican realists (E.g., Powell, Baker, etc.)?

BA said...

I didn't read either of those comments but I read your blog. Sadly, I agree with you. I wanted to like Romney, my in-laws are freaking in love with him, I liked him a centrist, and I thought at first he was just trying to placate the religious right; however, I agree that I think he's gone too far to ever credibly make his way back to the center. It's unfortunate.

blondemama said...

Blah, blah, blah. He's hot. Seriously though, I guess there is/was some political add with him shirtless or something and they had to pull it because it was to "provactive". I wish I could give you some source but I'm not sure if it was a dream or not.

blondemama said...

ad not add

tigerfoxbear said...

I too read the blog, but not the comments. Do either of you, or does anyone think that Centrist Romney would have ever been elected to office? Or would have had a better chance at being elected? If you answer Yes, you are wrong. If you answer No, then you have the answer as to why the sudden shift in ideology.

BA said...

All he had to do was position himself ever so slightly to the right of McCain. The religious right hate McCain but he has been the front runner for a while. They also would hate Guiliani w/o much help from Romney, but then he goes and makes ridiculous statements on the Agents-of-Intolerance-700-Club. He should have let the other candidates shoot themselves in the foot they didn't need his help. But he was the fastest on the draw in self-destructing.

tigerfoxbear said...

I'll be honest, I have no idea what his strategy is, and it does seem ridiculous that he has made these changes so recently. For someone who is obviously bright, and experienced, it's interesting to see that Romney appears to think his smoke and mirrors are going to make him more marketable to the religious right. What I'd like is for someone to explain how anyone would change their opinion of him based solely on his recent positions? I like him because he is handsome, and because he has a sweet cabin at Deer Valley, so I'll probalby vote for him, UNLESS he sells his cabin.

Gargantus said...

holy shit! I leave for a few months, hoping that bohn will finally get his act together and stop posting long boring shit. Do a post about naked ladies or something, seriously. PS if my comment is irrelivent to the post or the other comments it's because i read neither the post or the other comments.

Alifinale said...

I have stayed at his cabin in Deer Valley so I like him too. Seriously though. I kind of have to like him because my sister is best friends with his son. But I do think he is making it hard for me. That is if I pay any sort of attention to anything political.

Tara said...

Blah blah blah - come on Marc, new blog!!

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