Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 24, 2007
POLITICS: The Trouble With Mitt Romney (Part 2 of 5)
The second of a five-part series on why Republicans who are serious about winning the White House in 2008 are wasting our time on Mitt Romney. Part 1 is here, and my explanation of why I'm with Rudy is here.
II. The Experience Factor and The War
In Part 1, I discussed my general impression, and some of the reasons for that impression, that Romney would be a lousy general election candidate. Closely related to both the electability factor and what I call the governability factor - i.e., what confidence we have that Romney can actually move the chains in Washington if he gets elected, and not get eaten alive by the forces naturally opposed to a Republican president - is the question of Romney's experience and accomplishments in public office. Or rather, his relative lack thereof. At a time when the nation is at war and the general public has lost faith in our party first and foremost because the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina convinced people that the GOP was not doing a competent job of administering the federal government, and when the Democratic candidate has been in DC a long time but with little independent executive experience, Romney's thin resume in public office is likely to be a major handicap or at a minimum forfeit what is usually a strong Republican advantage, of the type enjoyed by Eisenhower (Supreme Allied Commander, a job involving intricate political/diplomatic maneuvering and unprecedented logistical planning), Reagan (two-term governor of the nation's largest state), Nixon (two-term Vice President as well as Congressman and Senator) and both President Bushes (the elder a two-term VP, CIA head and RNC Chair as well as a Congressman and UN and China Ambassador; the younger a two-term governor of Texas).
Read on - there is much, much more...
A. Political Experience
1. Running The Show
If Mitt Romney were the Democratic candidate for president, we would, I think, easily recognize a serious vulnerability on his part, one that is frequently discussed in the case of John Edwards: the man has served only a single term of elective office, as governor of Massachusetts from 2003-06. Moreover, Romney announced that he wasn't running for re-election a year before leaving office, and spent most of his last lame-duck year in office out of the state running for president, so in effect he really only has three years' worth of experience in elective office to run on; by his last year or so on Beacon Hill, everyone knew that he was gone for good from Massachusetts and would be answerable only to GOP primary and national election voters, not the constituents of the Massachusetts Legislature.
That just isn't enough. Look, it's wonderful that Romney has substantial executive experience in the private sector; would that we had more politicians who did. But fundamentally, the government is not a business. No matter how much you may know about the way to run an organization, negotiate a deal or even cajole a union, there are fundamentally different dynamics at work when you are operating in the political sphere - commanding the media narrative, building workable coalitions within and across parties, negotiating with people who answer to their own electorates, making tough law enforcement and public safety calls.
The federal government isn't even a government in the way a state government is, so much as an aggregation of fiefdoms that are practically the size of a state government by themselves. We trust governors more than, say, Senators to make the leap to the big leagues of running the whole thing. But there's less basis to think that a governor who has served only a single term, with one eye on the exits, has really mastered the job.
2. Running The Party
The ability to get re-elected (or elected to higher office in the same jurisdiction), at least once, is proof that a political leader knows how to do something more than make an initial good introduction. Romney himself knew from fairly early on, I suspect, that he was not going again before the same voters, and thus his experiences in Massachusetts give us very little to go on to show that he can generate and deploy real political capital. He's not Giuliani, who showed he could get the job done in NYC and still get handily re-elected; he's not Huckabee or Bill Clinton, both multi-term Governors in Arkansas; he's not George W. Bush, who was re-elected in a landslide as Texas Governor before embarking on a run for the presidency; he's not a multi-term legislator like Fred or McCain. We just don't know whether Romney's single electoral victory - in which he didn't even draw a majority of the vote - was a fluke in a great GOP year against a crummy candidate; we don't have much evidence that he can wear well over time on the same stage.
As Republicans, we are also choosing a de facto political leader for the party. One of the great positives for George W. Bush as a candidate in 2000 was his role as a party-builder; he'd knocked off a Democratic Governor, presided over a time of growth for the Texas GOP, and greatly expanded his own share of the vote in his landslide 1998 election, including proving he could build support among constituencies (notably Latino voters) who had not been traditional Republicans; his Republican successor still holds the Governor's mansion 7 years later. Mayor Giuliani likewise grew his own share of the vote in hostile territory, from a narrow loss in 1989 to victory in 1993 to a re-election landslide in 1997; he was instrumental in getting a nominal Republican elected as his successor in a 75% Democratic city to continue his core policy initiatives (defeating a candidate who promised to break from Rudy's mold), and since then, Rudy has criss-crossed the country campaigning for Republicans in 2002, 2004 and 2006, many of whom won close races - including Romney himself, who called in Rudy to campaign for him the night before the 2002 election.
Yet if there's one thing Romney has not done, it's build the GOP brand in his state, or really anywhere. Weak as the MA-GOP already was, it had held the Statehouse for 12 years already when Romney was elected; when he left office, his Lieutenant Governor was routed by an arch-liberal Democrat. Despite intensive efforts poured by Romney into the 2004 election, the GOP share of the state Legislature decayed on Romney's watch: the State Senate went from 33-7 Democrat in 2002 to 34-6 in 2004 to 35-5 in 2006; the State Legislature from 136-23 Democrat in 2002 to 139-21 in 2004 to 141-19 in 2006. As USA Today reported on the morning after one of the greatest days the Republican party has ever had:
The biggest Massachusetts loser in Tuesday's voting [was] Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who saw GOP numbers deplete in the Legislature despite his all-out effort to conquer more seats.
The "John Kerry tidal wave" - let that one sink in a little.
Where is the evidence that Mitt Romney is a strong candidate or a strong spokesman for the GOP and its ideals? All we have is a single election in 2002 (and a losing Senate campaign in 1994; I don't blame Romney for losing to Ted Kennedy, but it's certainly not a notch in his belt). Even if Romney could pull out the GOP nomination, it is an irrefutable historical fact that 50% of all major party nominees go on to lose the general election, a trend that is certain to hold in 2008. In other words, one of the parties is going to pick a loser; let's try to avoid that by picking someone with a little better record of winning.
B. The Romney Record
Given that the Democrats had a veto-proof majority in both Houses of the State Legislature for his entire tenure, Romney started off behind the eight-ball in actually governing in Massachusetts. It's to his credit that he was able, at least early in his tenure, to play a weak hand well enough to be a factor in the annual budget battle; his solid record on spending and taxes, when taken in the context of the Beacon Hill political scene, is probably his strongest suit as a public executive. The Club For Growth notes the high point:
Romney was more successful when he took on the State Legislature for imposing a retroactive tax on capital gains earnings. After a bloody fight, Romney succeeded in passing a bill preventing the capital gains tax from being applied retroactively, resulting in a rebate of $275 million for capital gains taxes collected in 2002.
That said, Romney can't claim any kind of real record for cutting taxes or spending; the Legislature wouldn't let him. But the Club notes another significant victory:
As governor, Romney pushed for important changes to Massachusetts expansive welfare system. Although federal welfare reform passed in 1995, Massachusetts was woefully behind, relying on a waiver to bypass many of the legislation's important requirements. Romney fought for legislation that would bring Massachusetts' welfare system up to date with federal standards by increasing the number of hours each week recipients must work and establishing a five-year limit for receiving benefits. Much to his credit and to the dismay of many Massachusetts liberals, Romney successfully forced Medicaid recipients to make co-payments for some services and successfully pushed for legislative action forcing new state workers to contribute 25% of their health insurance costs, up from 15%. Governor Romney also deserves praise for proposing to revolutionize the Massachusetts state pension system by moving it from a defined benefit system to a defined contribution system.
(Footnotes omitted). All of this, even in combination with some of what I discuss below, is why I think that Romney was, on balance, a good governor, and why I'd eagerly support him for governor if he ran in my own state. But other aspects of the Romney record suggest a candidate who is not really ready for prime time nationally.
Much of Romney's record is one of battles in which Romney either (1) did a lot of talking but accomplished nothing, (2) got steamrolled by the Democrats, or (3) only discovered the issue as a presidential candidate. Even his ballyhooed, and reasonably well-handled, stands on same sex marriage and stem cell research didn't end in anything like decisive victories.
One major accomplishment that Romney has at times touted is his plan for comprehensive health care reform. The problem is, Romney loves to talk about his plan, but doesn't so much love to talk about the fact that his plan was not the one that got passed into law - or the role that his own proposal played in giving political cover to Democrats to pass a more expansive set of government health care mandates. The use of heavy-handed government mandates to create "universal" health care is precisely what has led more than a few observers to compare Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts to HillaryCare. Where this feeds into Romney's inexperience is that a savvier politician would have understood something that all conservatives need to have tattooed into their brains: once you propose a big government program and start negotiating the details with Democrats, there is nothing for the mandates and the spending to do but grow, grow, grow. If we get national healthcare in this country it is likely to start just as the Massachusetts program did: with a GOP leader who thinks he can ride the tiger:
To move toward universal coverage, [Senators] Edwards, Clinton and Obama have approaches that borrow from the Massachusetts model. That plan, regarded as one of the nation's most innovative, took key elements of the 1993 Clinton plan and made them practical politically - so practical that the plan was enacted in 2006 by a Democratic legislature with support from a Republican governor, 2008 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
(Romney was also sufficiently desperate to get a plan passed that he let slide the fact that the plan would involve public financing of abortion. It's reasonable to argue that Romney couldn't win an abortion fight in Massachusetts, and indeed that doing so would have broken a campaign promise in 2002 not to change the state's abortion laws - but it's also an illustration of how little Romney could really accomplish in Massachusetts).
To pick a few more examples: Romney's actual record on immigration is fairly thin on the ground; he did nothing about, say, sanctuary cities in Massachusetts during his time as governor, and his signature achievement, an agreement with the federal government, was signed so late in his term it was voided by his successor before it could take effect (although one of the spending items he successfully vetoed was a plan to extend in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants). Romney has talked a lot in this campaign about pornography - but his actual record of doing something about it is pretty non-existent, as compared to Giuliani, who fought tooth and nail court and zoning battles to reclaim Times Square from smut peddlers and strip clubs. Romney made a great show of ripping Larry Craig for soliciting sex in a public men's room, but never seemed to get too exercised about the problem noted by his predecessor with public rest stops in Massachusetts being used as sexual trysting spots.
Did Romney face obstacles that prevented him from doing a lot more? Absolutely; if you are critiquing him as a governor, that's a huge mitigating factor. But it's also the point: with just a short tenure in office and few powers to exercise, we just don't know how well Mitt can play the game as it would need to be played in DC, any more than we know whether a quarterback who has played his whole career with dismal receivers and a terrible line on a bad team would step up to lead a quality team to the Super Bowl. Can he keep all his receivers involved? Can he bear up under big-game pressure? It's all a leap of faith.
C. Leading The Nation In Wartime
Where Romney's inexperience is particularly worrisome is in foreign affairs. It's true enough that most presidents come to office with little experience actually running foreign policy, and presidents who have been governors often particularly need to learn on the job. But a couple of things need to be pointed out.
First, look again at the list of GOP presidents since World War II raised the national security stakes: Ike, Nixon, and George HW Bush all had extensive foreign policy experience, and Reagan had spent the better part of a decade and a half laying out his foreign policy vision, including a famous nationally televised debate with Robert Kennedy 13 years before Reagan won the White House. People expect the GOP to run a candidate who can be trusted with national security from Day One - it's a critical part of the party's appeal. Bush in 2000, running in what we then thought was peacetime, is the sole exception to this, and Bush's victory was, shall we say, too close for comfort. Running Romney - a guy who scarcely had any profile on foreign affairs until about 2006, and as recently as 2005 was pleading that he was just a governor who shouldn't be asked about Iraq - in wartime forfeits yet another advantage.
Second, yes, it's true that we have had presidents who learned foreign policy essentially on the job - George W, Clinton, Carter, and Wilson being the main examples. Even if you think that's a lineup of presidents with successful foreign policies (I would guess that you would look long and hard for anybody who speaks well of all four), a critical problem for voters is that you could basically never have predicted, at the time of their campaigns, the foreign policies these men actually ended up carrying out. There may well be a Romney Doctrine, but I have no clue what it would look like, and as of today I'm not sure he could say what it would be either. That's not to say he has no ideas or foreign policy platforms, just to recognize that he's still working through things that other candidates have been dealing with for years (McCain and Thompson were both Senators, and Rudy has been out there on national security issues for a long time even before he was thrust to the center of the War on Terror - recall, his first big victory as US Attorney 24 years ago was the conviction of Marc Rich for breaking the embargo with Iran), and it's hard to predict with certainty what we would be getting. Pig, meet poke.
Third, inexperienced presidents can get us in a lot of trouble. Clinton, had he had more experience, might not have botched the Somalia misadventure as badly as he did; his later military operations were not as badly handled. JFK, who had even been a Senator, screwed up the Bay of Pigs and essentially brought the country to the brink of nuclear war before he got his bearings as Commander-in-Chief. Sometimes, people inexperienced in foreign policy debates just say the wrong thing, like Romney's now-infamous comment about having to talk to his attorneys before deciding whether he needed Congressional authorization to bomb Iran, or his botched debate answer about IAEA inspectors and the run-up to the Iraq War. Everybody has their gaffes, but Romney's foreign affairs pronouncements have a bit too much of an air of trying to gloss over the gaps in his knowledge.
To get specific, I don't trust Romney on Iraq. Romney's public statements on the war have consistently left the door open to distancing himself from the war and seeking to accelerate a withdrawal, something that's unthinkable under Rudy, Fred or McCain. (Jim Geraghty has more, including statements suggesting that Romney is open to a Joe Biden-style partition of Iraq, and Romney has also distanced himself from comparisons to the long-term U.S. security role taken in places like Korea). As recently as September, he was placing his stress on hopes for a quick drawdown:
After the surge, Romney said he envisioned a draw-down of U.S. troops where those who remained would take on a "support role" away from the front-lines.
Of course, a quick withdrawal from Iraq would be a wonderful thing if it was feasible, but a presidential candidate who sells rosy scenarios in this setting may not be all that willing to endure slings and arrows in pursuit of victory. And yes, I know that you can also line up Romney statements going the other way...that doesn't really convince me on the man's constancy.
"[O]ther GOP candidates, like Mitt Romney, have shied away from identifying too much with neocons, especially those who worked for the Bush administration. Romney has consulted with critics and skeptics of the Iraq War, including Gen. Anthony Zinni, Gen. Barry McCaffrey and former NATO commander Joseph Ralston - but he's also met with hawks like Fred Kagan. "He talks to everybody, more or less," says one campaign adviser who didn't want to be named talking about internal campaign strategy.
(More bios of his counter-terrorism advisers here).
Finally, while Romney has publicly supported the "surge" counterinsurgency strategy pursued in 2007 under the leadership of Gen. David Petraeus, my RedState colleague Jeff Emanuel has pointed out to me that Romney actually said on the campaign trail that he would keep American troops in Iraq in large bases and let the Iraqis step forward to take the fight and to be responsible for security - which is, in essence, exactly the same strategy followed previously under Gen. George Casey through 2006. Now, you can argue that the Casey strategy was not without its accomplishments, or you can argue that it was born of necessity, but nearly nobody argues today that a repeat of that strategy would work, much less that it would be an improvement on Gen. Petraeus' strategy of using patrols to aggressively hound the enemy. If that's Romney's position, it's consistent with his desire that "those who remained would take on a 'support role' away from the front-lines," but it's possible that Romney was mis-speaking. Neither possibility is reassuring.
Conclusion of Part 2
If we were running this campaign in the conditions of 2000, I'd be more open to Romney, but the GOP simply can't win this election without a candidate who easily beats Hillary in national security credibility - and the nation at war needs more experienced leadership than he is ready to offer.
Next up in Part III: Yes, it's the flip-flop issue. The fact that you knew it was coming should tell you something.