Posts Tagged Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney as Adlai Stevenson

These comments by Mitt Romney’s son Tagg have gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of days:

In an interview with the Boston Globe examining what went wrong with the Romney campaign, his eldest son Tagg explains that his father had been a reluctant candidate from the start.

After failing to win the 2008 Republican nomination, Romney told his family he would not run again and had to be persuaded to enter the 2012 White House race by his wife Ann and son Tagg.

“He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire… to run,” Tagg Romney said. “If he could have found someone else to take his place… he would have been ecstatic to step aside.”

By coincidence, I happened to be reading Joseph Epstein’s profile of Adlai Stevenson in his new book, Essays in Biography.  To the extent that these revelations can be taken at face value, the resemblance to Stevenson’s approach to power is remarkable.

Let’s start by acknowledging some differences between Stevenson and Romney.  While both were bright, Romney is probably more intellectual than Stevenson was (Stevenson played the part of the intellectual better, but the only book on his nightstand when he died was the social register), and Stevenson was probably a better governor.  He could have had the 2nd term in Illinois if he had wanted it instead of the presidential nomination, whereas it’s not clear at all that Romney would have had a 2nd term if he had run, rather than prepare for his 2008 run.

But both Romney and Stevenson appear to have had a healthy, philosopher-king style distrust of power, enough that it evidently made them each uneasy about having it themselves.  That’s not necessarily the reason they lost, but in Stevenson’s case, his public prevarications seem to have projected enough weakness that the public went the other way.  At least Romney had the sense to keep any doubts private.  And while he made the strategic error of not answering the personal attacks sooner, nobody really thinks that’s because he was trying to take a dive.

Stevenson, like Romney, also seems to have lacked a coherent governing philosophy.  In Epstein’s telling:

The style, it is said, is the message.  But in the case of Adlai Stevenson, the style seemed sometimes to persist in the absence of any clear message whatsoever.  He preached sanity; he preached reason; his very person seemed to exert a pull toward decency in public affairs.  Yet there is little evidence in any of his speeches or writing that he had a very precise idea of how American society was, or ought to be, organized. His understanding of the American political process was less than perfect, as can be seen from his predilection for the bipartisan approach to so many of the issues of his time.  One might almost say that Stevenson tried to set up shop as a modern, disinterested Pericles, but that he failed to realize that the America of the 1950s was a long way from the Golden Age of Athens.

Ultimately, Stevenson was better at not saying much; his rhetoric influenced both Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s sale of the Great Society; whomever the Republicans nominate in 2016 will likely owe little to Romney’s campaign talks.

I don’t want to overdraw the comparison.  Romney only ran in one general election; in some ways, his 2012 race contains elements both of Stevenson’s initial 1952 run and his rematch with Eisenhower in 1956, but in other ways, was completely different.  Having never been the party’s nominee in 2008, Romney couldn’t lead the party in-between elections.  The Republicans as a whole are coming to understand what Stevenson learned in 1952 – that a Presidential campaign is a terrible place to define issues and educate the public; individual personalities simply play too large a part in any single-office election.

But the biggest difference is how Romney will react after his loss, compared to how Stevenson reacted after his.  Stevenson desperately wanted the nomination in 1960, only couldn’t bring himself to say so until it was too late.  He wanted it, but he wanted to be asked, rather than having to ask.  Romney really does seem done with politics, except for the inevitable post mortems.



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Dan Santorum?

Those of us who suffered through 2010’s Colorado Republican gubernatorial campaign travesty should have learned some lessons.   So far, the national presidential nominating process is making me regret that Colorado is a trend-setter.

A similar dynamic – discontent with a front-runner, seen as hostile – or at best indifferent – to the Tea Party, and seen as hand-picked by an entitled establishment too timid to settle on actual conservatives to carry the party’s banner.  Both men, who seemed conservative enough in earlier incarnations, are had their bona fides questioned later.  In both cases, the criticism may be somewhat unfair, but it’s also led to a lack of enthusiasm for that candidate, and fueled talk of third-party runs, even before the nomination has been decided.

McInnis seemed to spurn Tea Party support, and then was victimized by a chiron during a national TV interview; likewise, Romney, while not going out of his way to the extent that Huntsman did, has also seemed to be relying on monetary advantages and strategic support of current and former office-holders in key states.

As a result, many Colorado Republicans decided to teach McInnis a lesson on the way to the nomination, only to find that the lesson they taught him left the party with a man who had no business being the nominee, and a party apparatus that was nevertheless honor-bound to support him – if only minimally – in the general election campaign.  (To be fair, many of us held Tancredo’s self-positioning for a 3rd-party run prior to the primary to be subverting rather than honoring his own party’s nominating process.)

Likewise, I believe that many, but by no means all, of those voting for Gingrich or Santorum are doing so in order to teach Romney or the party establishment a lesson, or to stretch out the process as long as practicable, perhaps even thinking it will lead to a brokered convention.  February was supposed to be Romney’s month, with a series of caucuses and primaries in states friendly to him.  Instead, he’s faltered, and Santorum has given conservatives reason to look to him as the last remaining credible”Not Romney.”  I’m not certain that they all actually want to see Santorum on the podium in Tampa accepting the party’s nomination in August.  But that’s where we could end up.

There are obvious significant differences between the campaigns.  Santorum is a two-term US Senator who knows something about fundraising and running a campaign; Dan Maes was not, and did not.  However badly he might do in the general election – and I think he would do very badly – nobody thinks he’s going to walk away with 11% of the vote.  However much Ron Paul may dream of a 3rd-party run, he’s nowhere near as attractive a candidate as Tancredo was to desperate Republicans in 2010.  It doesn’t look as though Romney’s put himself in a position to be torpedoed by members of his own party holding a grudge.  And of course, the gubernatorial nomination was a one-day primary; there was no opportunity to rethink the decision.

But even as more and more people assume that the Republican sold as the most electable will be the eventual nominee, much as people even on primary night assumed that McInnis would pull out a win, Obama’s re-elect numbers on Intrade keep rising.

The Republicans need this election to be a referendum on Obama; in both 2010 and so far in 2012, the nominating process has been a referendum on the front-runner.  Thus far, the Romney campaign has serially been able to create a series of successful one-on-one contests with other candidates.  He’s done so with the help of a national media that was McCain’s base until he became the nominee.  Some conservatives and libertarian-minded Republicans have been all too willing to chew up Mitt’s challengers from the right as not conservative, and now find themselves without a champion.  And the candidates themselves were better at making the case against each other or against Romney than they were at showing how they’d make the case against Obama.

At my own caucus, I closed the discussion by asking people to vote for whom they actually wanted to see as the nominee.  Not to vote as a protest against Romney, or to send a message, or as some cathartic gesture, but to vote for the man they actually wanted to see represent the party in the election.  I did this, reminding people of the consequences of playing games with their vote, which is how we ended up with Dan Maes as our nominee, and John Hickenlooper as governor.

None of which is to suggest that anyone abandon their candidate for the sake of an artificial “unity.”  If you want one of the three others still standing to be the party’s nominee, or believe that he better represents the party, there’s no sense in not supporting him.  But if you mainly believe that Romney needs sharpening or the establishment needs its nose bloodied, you’re playing a very dangerous game.

We’ve seen that movie before, and it ends badly.

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Sigh. Romney.

Michael Barone, that walking encyclopedia of American political history, has often made the comparison between the development of the Tea Party and the entry of the peaceniks into American political life:

Both movements represent a surge in political activity by hundreds of thousands, even millions, of previously uninvolved citizens.

Both movements focused on what are undeniably central, not peripheral, political issues: war and peace, the size and scope of government.

Both movements initially proclaimed themselves nonpartisan or bipartisan, but quickly channeled their efforts into one political party — the peace movement in the Democratic party, the tea-party movement in the Republican party.

But new movements prove troublesome for the political pros, and nowhere more than in the most problematic part of our political system, the presidential nominating process. (Is it just a coincidence that this is the one part of the system not mentioned at all in the Constitution?)

Peaceniks and tea partiers naturally want nominees who are true to their vision. They are ready to support newcomers and little-vetted challengers over veteran incumbents who have voted the wrong way on issues they care about.

But the things that make candidates attractive to movements can also make them unattractive to independent voters.

The Democrats struggled with this in the 1968, 1972, and 1976 cycles. The old-timers pushed through the accomplished Hubert Humphrey over the diffident Eugene McCarthy in 1968, but they lost to George McGovern in 1972. He was a more serious candidate than is generally remembered, but he did lose 49 states to Richard Nixon.

The anti-war movement didn’t get started in earnest until 1967, and Lyndon Johnson didn’t declare his intention not to run again until early 1968. The lateness of the primary calendar made it possible for Bobby Kennedy to declare late, and their paucity made it possible for the party elders to anoint Humphrey regardless of those votes. By 1972, the McGovernites had taken over the levers of power, opened up the primaries, and made most of them proportional. This insured a longer primary campaign, and did nothing to prevent a credentials fight over the Illinois delegation at the Convention. In the event, McGovern was nominated with fewer than 60% of the delegates, and defeated with less than 38% of the vote. The military defeatism and the electoral defeats helped usher the Scoop Jackson Democrats out of the party and, eventually, Ronald Reagan into the White House. The Democrats would elect the center-left but feckless Carter, and the decidedly un-peacenik DLC founder Bill Clinton, and it wouldn’t be until 2008 that they elected Obama in an encore of the first anti-war movement.

The Tea Party, while nascent in 2007, didn’t really gather steam until early 2009, almost four years ahead of the next Presidential election, and the Republicans in 2012 have likewise done away with early winner-take-all primaries. So it probably sits somewhere between anti-War 1968 and isolationist 1972. The Establishment is weakened, but  not dead yet. If nominating Romney would be more like 1968, giving Gingrich the nod would look a lot more like 1972.

Of course, as Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. Republicans not being Democrats, should Romney be the nominee, he likely won’t have to accept the nomination in the middle of police putting down riots from disgruntled Tea Party members. It’s unlikely that large cuts in spending will lead many Republicans into a socialist Exodus.

The similarities are alarming enough. Just as Humprhey’s defeat helped discredit the old liberalism, so a Romney defeat – or even a Romney presidency – could finish the job of discrediting vanilla conservatism that George W. Bush started, and open the door for a 1972-like candidacy by a Rand Paul-like figure. I don’t think I’m unduly cynical when I say that that very hope has led some in the libertarian wing of the party to campaign against Daniels, Perry, or Pawlenty as “not conservative,” or “not presidential,” while being willing to go along with a Romney nomination. (They’ll be disappointed. That so many in the Tea Party have cast their lot with Gingrich rather than the catastrophically irresponsible Ron Paul is actually a healthy sign that the word “conservative” will not be re-branded to mean “libertarian.”)

Republicans are looking for a conservative who is both ideologically grounded and a practical politician. While that may have been on offer earlier in the process, it’s not now, with the nomination fight now looking like that Star Trek episode where Kirk divides into two separate personalities, one nice but passive, the other more aggressive and less principled.

Romney’s problem is that even if you consider his public persona to be authentic, he seems rather timid for a man who built his career risking capital at the gaming tables of private equity. A early Marco Rubio endorser, he has Chris Christie’s support, but campaigns like Charlie Crist. His reaction to individual Social Security accounts as fiscally irresponsible confirms his image as narrowly technocratic. He campaigns as the safe, sane, sober, responsible alternative to both Gingrich and Obama, and it may well be that the American people want safe, sane, sober, and responsible after the drama of the last four years, even if it does represent a lost opportunity to do more.

Those who caricature Gingrich’s appeal as mere media-hatred, though, miss the point. Such an appeal, while superficial, isn’t just limited to Republicans; ask Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Showing backbone in clear, simple terms is not nothing, although it’s not enough.  And it seems to give way to an opportunism of its own at inconvenient moments.

I’m not sure that Gingrich would lead to a 1964-type down-ticket meltdown. At the beginning of 1972, Nixon’s Gallup approval ratings were well over 50%, and stayed there until the onset of Watergate. Obama has nowhere near that level of public support, and an impending Presidential defeat would let Senate and House Republicans campaign all the more effectively as a check on Obama’s power. In 1972, the Democrats picked up a net 2 seats in the Senate, and lost only 13 seats of a 255-seat pre-election caucus in the House. Johnson’s approvals touched 80% when his party went from 258 to 295 seats in the House, and from 64 to 66 seats in the Senate. Even a Gingrich candidacy wouldn’t result in that kind of wipeout, although it would probably cost us a shot at the Senate.

Sadly, that might be enough. Unlike the Democrats, we can’t afford to wander in the political wilderness for another couple of decades. If Obama were re-elected, and we failed to retake the Senate, Obamacare would be permanently enshrined into law, and the American citizen transformed into a subject. Obama is willing to use executive power up to and beyond the fullest extent permissible by law. Congress’s best means of asserting its part of the check-and-balance system is the power of the purse. But Senate Democrats have deprived Congress of that power, putting government spending on auto-pilot by not even bringing a budget up for a vote. So failing to take the Senate would put all the burden back on the House Republicans to find a credible way to threaten – and if need be, go through with – a government shutdown, without committing political suicide in the process.

If nominating Romney is enough to help us carry the Senate, even if it isn’t enough to get us back to the White House, it will put the party in a position of strength to challenge him, especially given the Senate partisan profile up for re-election in 2014.

This isn’t a matter of giving in to the Establishment.  If there were no other credible choices, if this were 2008, post-Colorado, and I were left with a meaningless vote, that would be one thing.  But there’s nothing the matter with concluding that while the party Establishment was too quick to line up behind Romney in the first place, I can make my own choice to support him now, for my own reasons, at a time when my vote – fortunately – still matters.  It’s called deciding, and that’s a very different thing from having something decided for you.

To this extent, Barone’s final paragraph is instructive: “Tea partiers will grouse if Romney is nominated. But maybe they need patience and perseverance. One lesson of history is that a movement can reshape a party. Another is that it takes time.”


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Defensive Gymnastics

Last night, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich went head-to-head on the long-term solvency of Social Security.  Gingrich proposed – again – individual accounts, modeled after the highly successful Chilean “Little Passbook” system.  (From Gingrich’s remarks, the system’s architect, Jose Pinera, was slated to give a presentation on the subject later, but you can see him speak here.)  Santorum pointed out the plan’s Achilles’ Heel, the cost of covering defined benefits to current and soon-to-be recipients during the transition.

Instead, Santorum, and then Romney, proposed more tweaks to the system, of the kind that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.  Santorum’s solution, raising the retirement age a couple of years, isn’t going to solve a mismatch caused by declining birth rates and decades-longer life spans.  Romney’s seemed unaware of the existence of 401(k) accounts and IRAs.

To erstwhile Romney supporter Jennifer Rubin, however, not only is Santorum’s limited vision correct, it’s an excuse to boost the un-nominatable Santorum at the expense of Gingrich, who poses a real national threat to her candidate:

…we have a huge, nagging debt right now and he’s going to make it worse with his plan. And while Santorum was certainly right on substance, Gingrich’s glibness may have successfully concealed how really silly is his policy proposal.

In short, aside from the political hurdles (George Bush died on his sword over individual accounts) Gingrich’s Social Security plan is, as Santorum claimed, irresponsible.

Individual accounts funded by individual contributions – defined contribution accounts – are the right answer, and the longer we wait, the greater the cost, the greater the burden on the country’s finances.  But to Rubin, the right answer, easier to implement today than tomorrow, is “irresponsible,” while ineffective tweaks and redundant savings plans are “right on substance.”

And this is only a taste of the defensive gymnastics, the excuses for timidity, the defenses of unnecessary compromise (and yes, folks, there is such a thing as necessary compromise) that a Romney presidency will likely bring.

No wonder those promises of “electability” are beginning to seem a little suspect.

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