We’re all for transparency these days, and if anything is transparently clear about American politics, it is that Mitt Romney will do or say anything to become president. The best guess is that at heart he is an old-fashioned moderate, business-oriented Republican (just about the last one standing). But there’s no knowing for sure. He may have no sincere beliefs at all.
There was a piece about Romney on the front page of the New York Times on Sunday, and what amazes me is the deadpan frankness with which the article exposed him as a phony, and then went on to discuss what Romney might do to solve this problem.
He was criticized last time for being a stiff, so this time he is not wearing a tie. Ever. Even on occasions when every other male is wearing one. Problem solved, as Romney sees it.
“To Quiet Critics,” says the Times headline, “Romney Puts ’12 Focus on Jobs.” In other words, change the subject! “I like President Obama,” Romney told the Times patronizingly, “but he doesn’t have a clue how jobs are created.” Did Romney have a clue in ’08 but lost it? Because the last time he ran, Romney played down his experience as a businessman and played up his recently acquired views as a social conservative, because that was what every commentator and consultant was telling him he had to do back then.
One little difficulty with Romney’s new emphasis on his expertise — and Obama’s lack thereof — about job creation is that Romney doesn’t actually say what he would do differently to create more jobs. He just repeats that “I spent my career in the private sector. I know how jobs are created.” The nearest he comes to getting specific is to say that in the business world, “the three rules of every successful turnaround” are “focus, focus, focus.” This is Peter Pan advice, about as useful as repeating “I do believe in fairies.”
To be sure, Obama’s economic leadership is not beyond criticism. Many people think his stimulus and various bailouts were too costly (though both policies were initiated under his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush). Some think his financial regulations are too complex. Almost everyone thinks he should have been more aggressive in tackling the deficit, though somewhat fewer have offered specific alternatives.
Anyway, none of this has anything to do with job creation in the short run (which is the run Romney is running). A smaller stimulus or more aggressive deficit reduction would have reduced jobs in the short run.
The Times says that Romney’s convenient flip-flops in 2008 on abortion and gay rights “prompted questions about whether his positions were driven by politics or conviction.”
In fact, to any reasonable person, Romney’s reversals on such questions didn’t raise questions about his sincerity as much as answer them. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone who really admired Romney’s record as a businessman, or who really couldn’t stand Obama, to overlook Romney’s current right-wing stands on abortion and gay rights. But his sudden, convenient and implausibly explained reversals on these issues say something about his character that you can’t flip away quite so easily.
But healthcare is the killer. The center of the Obama healthcare reform, and the part that has most excited the ire of conservatives, is the individual mandate — the requirement that everyone purchase health insurance somewhere, somehow. Romney now says, like all leading Republicans, that given the chance, “I would repeal Obamacare.” Yet Romney advocated, signed and (for a while) bragged about a similar requirement in the Massachusetts reform passed while he was governor.
The similarity is no coincidence. Private sector healthcare can’t work without some sort of mandate that healthy people as well as sick ones carry insurance. As a smart businessman, not just some dumb politician, Romney surely grasps this point. Nevertheless, he says that the situation requiring an individual mandate was “unique to Massachusetts” rather than — more accurately — a universal requirement imposed by mathematics.
To me, these issues and the way Romney has handled them are characterological, unchangeable at this point, and stamp him as ethically unqualified to be entrusted with the presidency. To his former advisors quoted in the Times, they are merely strategic challenges to be overcome. Alex Castellanos says Romney should have gotten healthcare “litigated” and over with long before the 2012 campaign started. Doug Gross, a “prominent Iowa Republican,” suggests that Romney has to “present himself as genuine and not as someone chasing voters far to the right.” (That is, he can chase them, as long as he doesn’t present himself as the kind of guy who chases them.) “More than a dozen” previous Romney supporters worried whether he “could withstand scrutiny without being tempted to reinvent himself again.”
Pshaw. Maybe he can, through extreme self-discipline, refrain from flip-flopping this time. But that would only be if he calculated that the cost of the flip-flop exceeded the cost of an unpopular position. (He is, as he keeps reminding us, a businessman.)
Romney and I attended the same private high school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., although he was several years ahead. I remember only one encounter. For some reason, we shared a packed car to a gubernatorial debate during his father’s reelection campaign for governor. The younger Romney was arguing vigorously the whole way that people were talking more about why the Michigan economy was good than why the Michigan economy was bad, and that this proved that Romney senior’s tenure as governor had been a success.
In a speech over the weekend, as reported in the Times, Romney said that “the president and his people spend more time talking about me and Massachusetts healthcare than ‘Entertainment Tonight’ spends talking about Charlie Sheen.” After half a century, his presentation is a tiny bit funnier, but the point is just as lame.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, writes a column for Politico. A version of this column also appears on that website.