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.