What Mitt Romney Meant

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It’s an eternal question in politics: really? As in, does that politician really believe what they’re saying, or are they only saying it out of political expediency for reasons X, Y, and Z? Or as in, does that politician really believe in anything beyond themselves? Rarely were both of these questions asked so often of the same man as was the case for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Another, more recent question would be: who cares? Romney lost, and he lost clearly. His campaign was never a juggernaut, never a reflection of some larger social trend or movement, never particularly memorable. It’s not like he was the Barry Goldwater of the 21st century or anything — i.e., a loser but a unique, consequential, and ultimately historic one.

All that’s true, but I think it makes the mistake of privileging Mitt Romney the man over Mitt Romney the candidate. Mitt Romney the man was crushingly boring, but Mitt Romney the candidate was actually, strange to say, radical. Maybe not radical in the sense that Romney proposed anything we hadn’t in some fashion heard before; but radical in the sense that we’d never heard it all, all at once, all from the same candidate, and with all on the line.

Outside of Sarah Palin’s more loose-talking moments in the waning days of the ’08 campaign, we hadn’t heard the lowest common denominator of the Republican Party voiced so repeatedly and enthusiastically. Coming from Sarah Palin, a candidate composed almost entirely of social class signifiers and tribal sentiments, this level of bland orthodoxy was one thing. Coming from the equally but oppositely class-centric Romney was quite another.

What makes this Economist piece on a hypothetical Romney presidency valuable, then, is its ability to, however imperfectly, shed light on whether or not Romney 2012’s rhetoric was plastic, Republican-pleasing PR; or whether it was a true preview of what was once yet to come. It sounds like the answer is, the latter:

Michael Leavitt, the former Utah governor who chaired Mr Romney’s transition team, describes [post-victory] plans to deliver a “jolt of confidence” by showing seriousness in a few big areas. He would simplify America’s spaghetti-spill of a tax code. He would grapple with the deficit; expand domestic energy production; and reduce the role of government in health care by hollowing out “Obamacare” reforms. Success was to be measured by bosses releasing cash they were hoarding when Mr Obama was president, and rushing to join a Romney-led American revival.

Romney aides wince at the comparison, but their 200-day plans sound like a Bain turn-around for America’s economy: a co-ordinated series of shocks aimed at impressing investors, but likely to startle and anger many ordinary folk. Democrats would have scorned it as a wish-list for bosses and billionaires. But Mr Romney believed his reforms would work, and work fast. Benefits would follow swiftly, in the form of private investment and job creation: persuading the wider public to trust in President Romney’s competence, if not to love him.

Team Romney’s 200-day plans included immediate, 5% cuts to public spending excluding security and social payments (though more money for defence), a weakening of the rules that Republicans say favour trade unions, a squeeze on public-sector jobs and pay, and a global push for free trade. Mr Romney would also have proposed lower income- and corporate-tax rates, offset by closing loopholes. Abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, a conservative dream, was not on the cards. But “personnel is policy”, notes Glenn Hubbard, Mr Romney’s chief economic adviser. Those chosen to regulate energy and tackle climate change would have weighed costs against benefits minutely. A long-term squeeze on welfare and health spending was a priority: wholesale immigration reform was not.

You wouldn’t expect the folks associated with the campaign, still less than a year since defeat, to chuckle and say, “Oh, yeah, that? That was all total BS.” At the same time, it’s surprising to hear that Romney really intended to do a good chunk of what sounded like it came from a movement conservative’s bucket list.

It’s a testament to three things: 1. How much the Republican Party as an institution, not Mitt Romney as an individual, was calling the shots; 2. How rightwing Romney was willing to go to fall in-line; and most importantly 3. How much candidates mean what they say.

Actually, it’s a testament to four things. The fourth? As the Economist author notes, these plans are “no historical curiosity…They reflect the confidence and radicalism of today’s Republican Party. Though he lost, America’s would-be CEO left a legacy.” Put differently: expect more Palins and Romneys in the Republican Party’s near-future.

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36 thoughts on “What Mitt Romney Meant

      • Yeah, in some ways, I will admit to myself that I am fairly extreme about certain things. For example, I think value neutrality is really really important and that commits me to certain policies that are outside the mainstream of both my own and American society. But on the other hand, I also know that you have fairly strong value judgements that commit you to fairly trenchant criticisms of what seem like mainstream beliefs to me.

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  1. Team Romney’s 200-day plans included immediate, 5% cuts to public spending excluding security and social payments (though more money for defence), a weakening of the rules that Republicans say favour trade unions, a squeeze on public-sector jobs and pay, and a global push for free trade. Mr Romney would also have proposed lower income- and corporate-tax rates, offset by closing loopholes. Abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, a conservative dream, was not on the cards. But “personnel is policy”, notes Glenn Hubbard, Mr Romney’s chief economic adviser. Those chosen to regulate energy and tackle climate change would have weighed costs against benefits minutely. A long-term squeeze on welfare and health spending was a priority: wholesale immigration reform was not.

    That’s your idea of a ‘radical’ program? You need to get out more.

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    • That was my thought too. And some of the other ideas – “He would grapple with the deficit; expand domestic energy production” – are embraced by Obama.

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      • I heard that Romney was going to use drones to kill American citizens abroad without a warrant (or so much as a trial!) and create the world’s largest repository of email, telephone calls, and associated metadata… IN UTAH (spooky Mormon music).

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      • OK. So we have Murali suggesting Elias is ‘radical’ for his liberalism in the first comment and then the suggestion that Republicanism is not radical today for a followup comment.

        I’v got a problem with this framing; radical liberals and traditional conservatives is not the status quo.

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      • To a large extent there is no radical left in American politics (there may be radical leftists in America, but they have no real effect on politics). There was once a fairly active and at least moderately influential radical left here, but that’s a thing of the past.

        To be fair, I don’t know that the truly radical right has much of an influence on politics, either. Perhaps some of the fringier “pro-life” groups, because they are not entirely disconnected from the less fringy “pro-lifers.”

        I worry that “radical” in these discussions has come to mean something like “not in or directly adjacent to the center,” which would be disturbing.

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      • I’m not Art Deco, Maybe there are republicans who are extreme, but some of Romney’s plans are milquetoast, some of Romney’s plans are just stupid and some are things that need to be done.

        It is not a question of whether democrats are the only extreme persons. America’s tax code, for example is horrendously complicated. The average person should be able to file his own taxes online in just one night. Hell, in Singapore, most people can pay taxes can do that in under 15 minutes. Just Login, look through everything and press okay.

        I still maintain that Obamacare is bad policy and will have long term consequences that harm the worst off. Rolling back Obamacare is not extreme either. I wouldn’t increase spending on defence, hell, like most people here I’d cut it in half. You know what’s really radical?
        Demolishing all current welfare programs and instituting a universal basic income.
        Halving the corporate tax.
        Eliminating corporate gains.
        Introducing a VAT
        Reforming the social security system (and the payroll tax) into an individual retirement and medical savings account system with an opt out possibility.
        Devolving all economic regulation to the states (or alternatively centralising the whole shebang. This half and half thing is just schizophrenic)
        And to throw a bone to the left, single payer insurance for catastrophic care.
        Setting up a business should be quick and easy

        By the standards of what needs to be done, Romney is nowhere near there. All he has is boilerplate. Boilerplate is going to tend to be stupid at times, but not always. If you were to call me a radical, I wouldn’t object too much. Romney is just re-arranging deck chairs.

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      • , you are not artdeco; and thankful I am of that.

        My complaint (or my observation, perhaps) is that there are frames here of radical liberal vs. steady conservative that do not reflect reality. Recognizing them as stereotypes that obscure rather then illuminate matters if we want to have worthwhile discussion.

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      • I think it’s interesting the extent to which “radical” is taken as a normative rather than descriptive assessment. Is that an American thing? Sometimes I get the impression that it is, though I have an American’s understanding of the rest of the world sometimes (which is to say, less-than-stellar). Perhaps it pertains to my own (lower-case “c”) conservative instincts, that I sometimes enjoy the cases where I am out of the mainstream or where my ideas would represent a significant jolt or even overhaul of the system.

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      • Will, that’s part of what I was trying to get at, but you said it better. I mean, “radical’ has, at least as far as I can tell, always had a normative component for most people, but it also had a descriptive one once upon a time. I don’t know that it really has the descriptive component anymore. At least, if it does, it has nothing to do with the meaning of the word “radical.”

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      • Murali,
        The average non-home owning person can file their taxes in one night. At least in PA, where I live.
        If taxes are fubar (which they are) it is in Cali/NY/NJ. Round here we have a flat state tax. And it’s low.

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      • — this:
        America’s tax code, for example is horrendously complicated. The average person should be able to file his own taxes online in just one night.

        I don’t know this for fact, but I’ve often read that Democrats wanted to simplify tax forms and filings, and were not allowed to by Republicans in Congress because they wanted complicated filings to reinforce the notion that taxes are bad. That’s pretty radical.

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      • But it is only 1 form out of a number of alternatives. You still have to know whether that is the correct form for you to use. As a whole, it is not a user friendly system. American bureaucracy is not the most efficient. In fact, it is the worst that I have encountered.*

        *Admittedly said experience is limited.

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  2. Reading this piece once again makes me happy that Mitt lost. As much as I think Obama is too much in the pocket of big corporate interests, Mitt is ten times worse. I fear he would have made the country even more of a corporately owned subsidiary than it already is. Not that the rest of his party is any better.

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    • Sure, I agree with that. But were his proposals “radical”? I mean, he was either a liar of ignorant regarding most of his own policy proposals, but when I look at them they don’t appear radical to me. Except for Medicare. His Medicare proposals struck me as radical since that constituted a moreorless wholesale dismantling of the current system.

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  3. It’s interesting that this is a purely economic agenda. His transparent phoniness as a social conservative was completely genuine.

    Anyway, the beauty part is that before it became clear that all those things did was increase misery and spike the deficit, he could break the US up and sell off the pieces.

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  4. “Success was to be measured by bosses releasing cash they were hoarding when Mr Obama was president, and rushing to join a Romney-led American revival.”

    Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigggggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhht.
    Romney’s entire life has been based on the idea that ‘success’ is having more cash in *your own* account.

    “Actually, it’s a testament to four things. The fourth?”

    Five things – the fifth being the raw BS arrogance of The Economist.

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  5. Politicians are the product of their times. Examining the nature of belief is the province of theologians and philosophers, not politicians. They understand two things: people fall in love for the damnedest reasons — and America has been afflicted with Promised Land mentality since its inception. It’s hardly surprising the politicians couch their rhetoric in messianic terms: that’s how anyone gets elected in America.

    It’s pointless asking what politicians believe. Nor, for that matter, should we ask any intelligent person that question. They all leave a Post-It note on top of the Settled Matter reading “For further examination.” We all know our personal vision of truth is woefully incomplete and every intelligent person since Roger Bacon accepts this fact. The truth is only as good as the experiment which proves it. Never trust a politician who wants to “Change Washington.” The only change they propose is to add their names to the lists of powerful persons and remove their opposition from that list.

    Mitt Romney represented, I suppose he still does represent a particular mindset for curing America’s ills. He understands how much money is sitting on the sidelines, trillions of dollars. Getting that money off the sidelines and into the market was his job. And he’s not wrong in pointing out how profoundly markets are influenced by fear and uncertainty. I used to have a fish tank. It got kinda nasty and I cleaned it Real Well. Killed all the fish in that tank, with the exception of a few feeder guppies who thrived thereafter. Government can do as much harm as good in Fixing Things. Best to implement changes on a gradual basis, come to terms with the consequences of each such step.

    And that’s where Romney failed. He wanted to Clean the Fish Tank Real Good. Most people hated the idea. People liked Obamacare. However dimly, ordinary people came to terms with the fact that health care in this nation is a mess. If Obamacare disturbs the status quo and made enemies in Big Healthco, people hate the insurance firms’ bureaucracies even more than they hate government bureaucracies.

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