Why Mitt Romney Sits Uneasy On A Conservative Saddle (Forbes.com) July 11, 2012Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays.
Tags: Presidential Elections
Richard Nixon, who ran for President or Vice President five times, liked to say that he had to run to the right in order to win the Republican nomination, but then to the center to win the general election. The last week or so reminds us that if Mitt Romney has been running to the right in campaign 2012, he isn’t there yet. His latest misstep—denying that Obamacare was a tax before deciding it was—has been hammered by conservatives from William Kristol of The Weekly Standard to Rupert Murdoch and the editorial team of the Wall Street Journal as one more proof that Romney is not a conservative, or is unable to run an effective campaign, or both.
I think I can explain why Mitt Romney sits uneasy on a conservative saddle—he is, at heart, a businessman, not a conservative. People often assume that business leaders are by nature political conservatives, but that is not so. Business leaders are inherently pragmatic, seeking to move their business interests forward as priority one. Sometimes that coincides with free markets and conservatism, but not always.
No less an authority than Milton Friedman explained the phenomenon this way: “Every businessman wants freedom for somebody else, but he wants special privilege for himself.” As Friedman elaborated, business people may well believe in free markets in theory, but in practice if their particular business would benefit from, say, a government tax break or a subsidy, they will be on the next flight to Washington to try to get it. That is their job, to do what it takes, within some bounds, to grow their businesses and to win the market.
You see evidence of this in Mitt Romney, whose career in business has made him a pragmatist, not an ideologue. When he seeks to explain the key difference between the healthcare plan he supported as Governor of Massachusetts and Obamacare, he says that sort of plan that was appropriate for his state, but not for the whole nation. Other than the principle of federalism, that is not a statement of philosophy but one of pragmatism, making things work as a governor of a liberal state. When he stumbled over whether Obamacare was a tax, he resolved it pragmatically, not philosophically: if the Supreme Court says it’s a tax, then it must be.
His thinking like a businessman is also a weakness of his current campaign platform. Take the economy, for example, where academic economist John Taylor writes short books offering a handful of first principles to drive economic recovery and reform. By contrast the pragmatic Romney has served up a 59-point plan. You don’t inspire people, or offer them principled messages, with a 59-point laundry list. You tell them what you really believe in, and what that will motivate you to do.
Evangelical Christians have become a key voting bloc for Republicans, constituting over 50% of Republican primary voters this year, and comprising over 25% of the population in fall swing states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio. Yet they are one more conservative group whose language Romney does not speak. When he gave the commencement address at Jerry Farwell’s Liberty University in the spring, there was great anticipation that he was finally beginning to reach out to this group. But, again, look at his message: my faith informs my values; my family is a top priority for me. This is nice general election talk, since most voters prefer a candidate who is not too religious, but it doesn’t reach Christian evangelicals, who want to hear that his faith leads him to strong positions on certain social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.
Romney is not likely to change his basic nature but there are some things he could do. He should start with a speechwriter and some policy advisors who understand the first principles of modern American conservatism to help him find that voice. His vice presidential selection, someone like Paul Ryan for example, must be a champion of conservative policy. In the end, of course, conservatives have nowhere to go but to support Romney. But in a close election, which the polls indicate this will be, voter energy and turnout will be absolutely crucial.
Ironically, Romney’s pragmatism may better suit him to ride toward the center than to the right, a gift that is especially needed to reach the critical independent voters in the fall. But if he doesn’t come out of the Republican convention with his right flank sealed, and with his conservative policies and message more clearly honed, he will not have the passionate support base on which to build a winning coalition.
Here is the link to the article: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2012/07/11/why-mitt-romney-sits-uneasy-on-a-conservative-saddle/