Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 4, 2011
POLITICS: David Brooks Likes The Crease of Mitt Romney's Pants

I could hardly sum up more pithily the problem with Mitt Romney's candidacy in four words than "David Brooks loves him." Brooks' column today is revealingly out of step with the party and the nation Romney is seeking to lead.

Let's start with what's missing from Brooks' description of the job Romney is applying for:

[T]he challenges ahead are technically difficult. There's a reason that no president since Reagan has been able to reform the tax code. There's a reason no president save Obama has been able to pass health care reform. These are complicated issues that require a sophisticated inside game - navigating through the special interests, building complex coalitions. They are issues that require executive expertise.

Now, I don't discount the idea that a good "inside game" is important, and indeed is one of the reasons why we generally look for presidents with some record of executive political leadership - indeed, for presidents with more of it than Romney brings to the table from a single term in office. But notice who is missing in this picture? The voters. Brooks ascribes no importance whatsoever to the president's role in persuading the public of anything (a critical factor in Reagan's tax cut and tax reform fights); he simply assumes that backroom deals can be cut that make the public's role moot:

He could probably work well with the leaders of his own party. If Romney were to be elected, he would probably share power with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the House speaker, John Boehner. These are not exactly Tea Party radicals. Instead, they are consummate professionals and expert legislators who could plausibly work together.

What about Romney's ability to sway voters?

Romney can be dull. Political activists like exciting candidates. But most people, who have lower expectations from politics and politicians, just want them to provide basic order. They want government to be orderly so they can be daring in other spheres of their lives. Romney is the most predictable of the candidates and would make for the most soporific of presidents. That's a good thing. Government would function better if partisan passions were on a lower flame.

This is all well and good if the government is set on a reliable course and needs no alterations, and if the partisan opposition was vanquished once and for all; you pick a technocratic manager to run the big machines well. (We're talking domestic policy; Brooks makes no mention of national security or international relations). But none of that is true: Brooks gives lip service to the idea that we have real problems with an unsustainable spending and entitlement state, but he is too happy with the status quo to admit to himself that fixing the country's genuine fiscal problems will require real, wrenching changes and an obstinate determination to see things through (let alone to survive the bruising fights that will loom over the next Supreme Court nominations, which are similarly a major inflection point). Nor does he address the thick hide a new president will need to make genuine reductions in the regulatory burdens that currently weigh down business, or to withstand the now-perennial calls for new bailouts (the next big ones on the way will be bailouts of the Postal Service and the State of California).

Let's turn to how Brooks misunderstands the nature of the challenges ahead:

[T]his is not a party riven by big ideological differences. This is not Reagan versus Rockefeller. Whoever wins the nomination will be leading a party with a cohesive ideology and a common set of priorities: reform taxes, replace Obamacare, cut spending and reform entitlements. The next president won't have to come up with a vision, just execute the things almost all Republicans agree upon.

This vision of a bloodless party dispute over technical competence sounds good, although of course this is what the Rockefeller/George Romney side of the party has been saying for decades. It's true that the big differences within the party these days are less about ideology per se than about strategy and tactics, but they are no less divisive for being so (hence, Romney echoing his own father's attacks on Barry Goldwater in his campaign against Rick Perry).

Note the crucial word choice "replace Obamacare." The word is not chosen by accident, and it carries enormous ideological freight. The great health care divide in the party for some time has been over whether Republicans need to accept a comprehensive and universal approach to health care, rather than leave the system as is and tinker piecemeal, by trial and error, around the edges seeking improvements. And Mitt Romney is the high priest of the former faction - the centerpiece of his agenda in his single term in office was passing a "comprehensive" and "universal" health care plan built on a foundation of individual mandates. Rather than a masterful inside game, what happened in that case was that Romney got rolled, badly, by Ted Kennedy and his state-level allies into a plan that has driven up insurance premiums in Massachusetts and laid the political groundwork for Obamacare.

Romney was warned of these consequences by conservatives at the time, and ignoring those warnings was the most significant decision, and largest strategic error, of his political career. But to Brooks, Romney's failure on his signature issue counts as a feather in Romney's cap because a big, complicated bill got passed with the support of a lot of interest groups. Consequences - and voters - be damned.

What does it mean to "replace" Obamacare? The next GOP president should make it a goal on Day One to repeal the bill and go back to the drawing board. Certainly, that should include a plan to follow repeal of the PPACA with the introduction of new, more modest proposals to improve the health care system in this country; nobody argues that our system is perfect, nor that it is such a libertarian utopia that government has no role in fixing problems that are in many cases the creation of government.

But the largest strategic error that can be made is for the next president to link repeal of Obamacare to passage of some equally "comprehensive" plan to "replace" it - thus dissipating political momentum on passage of a new, complex bill that may prove equally unpopular (especially at a time when the president will have to be busy with many other economic issues). And Romney's record and pronouncements thus far have indicated nothing to give confidence that he wouldn't fall into precisely such a trap (his emphasis on suspending Obamacare by executive order, while not a bad thing by itself, suggests the worrisome possibility that he might not put a full effort into getting it entirely off the books before the White House and its power over executive orders falls back into Democratic hands).

Time and again the past five years, David Brooks has been impressed by the supposed erudition of Barack Obama, and time and again he has been disdainful of competing virtues more important to democratic leadership and popular sovereignty. His ode to Romney demonstrates how little Brooks has learned from his own errors, and how far removed Romney's appeal is from those virtues.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:05 PM | Politics 2012 | Comments (18) | TrackBack (0)

Well, this likely won't end well.


Posted by: Rick at October 4, 2011 1:46 PM

I've switched from supporting Perry to supporting Romney. All of the stuff Crank writes about Romney, and Brooks' impression of Romney, may be true. But it's incredibly minor in the scheme of things. There is only one real issue: who gives the GOP the best chance to defeat Obama. Everything else is pales in comparison. And when Perry announced, I was convinced he gave the GOP the best chance -- I thought the Texas record, especially on jobs, would just blow away every other argument. But it just hasn't, and won't. I mean, Perry has a higher net unfavorable rating than Obama does! I don't know how the ^&$% Perry got to be this unpopular this fast, but he did, and I don't think he is going to magically become popular. I know, polls go up and they go down, but Perry very, very consistently does worse than Romney against Obama, and that's really the only thing I care much about.

Posted by: A.S. at October 4, 2011 2:32 PM

There is only one real issue: who gives the GOP the best chance to defeat Obama.

This sentence seriously makes me weep. We have a weakened president floating at about 40% approval rating, especially in the key swing states, and we're still talking about electability? Are you serious?

What's more, who's to say that Romney is the most electable of the candidates? He's been running for president for five years and he's barely ahead of Obama in the polls. Meanwhile, 75% of the Republican electorate is basically saying "anyone but Romney."

We are in the midst of a calamitous financial meltdown, and we want to replace Obama with Obama-light. Just amazing. Well, have fun with John McCain, V2.0. See how well that worked out for us.

Posted by: Paul Zummo at October 4, 2011 3:13 PM

We have a weakened president floating at about 40% approval rating, especially in the key swing states, and we're still talking about electability? Are you serious?

This is the attitude that gave us Senators O'Donnell, Angle, Buck and Miller. So, absolutely yes by first concern is electability. After all, the President is at 40% job approval and still beats Perry nearly everywhere important.

Posted by: A.S. at October 4, 2011 3:35 PM

This is the attitude that gave us Senators O'Donnell, Angle, Buck and Miller.

And yours is the attitude that gave us President McCain. I'm not an ideological absolutist, but there's a difference between running an ideologue like O'Donnell in a state like Delaware and running a conservative in an election year when the incumbent is beatable. Undoubtedly you also would have pulled the lever in 1980 for George HW Bush because that scary Reagan person would never beat Carter.

After all, the President is at 40% job approval and still beats Perry nearly everywhere important.

Rick Perry has had the worst two weeks of his political life, is still largely unknown to the electorate, and yet only barely trails a sitting President 13 months before an election. Mittens has been running for five years and is barely ahead. But go ahead and let the MSM and poll numbers decide who to vote for. That worked out real well last time.

Posted by: Paul Zummo at October 4, 2011 11:08 PM

Perry just isn't conservative enough to cause me to abandon a better shot at winning. I know he assumed the mantle of Great RW Hope, but that's not who he is or has been in Texas.

I'll gladly gamble on a real conservative--if Paul Ryan were running at 7% I'd have my checkbook out for him. Perry's no Paul Ryan.

Posted by: spongeworthy at October 5, 2011 12:54 PM

1. Joe Miller would be a Senator now if he'd run in a 2-way race. And exit polling showed Ken Buck won independents; he lost in part due to poor GOP turnout (the CO GOV race was a trainwreck), although the other thing that killed him was losing a lot of bitter moderate Rs. But overall, it's a false choice to suggest that every primary is mega-RINO Castle vs totally unelectable O'Donnell. Conservatives did very well with people like Rubio, Toomey, and Ron Johnson. As I have stressed repeatedly, the candidates matter, the states matter, the political mood matters. And I'm still not convinced that Romney can survive a general election.

2. I love Paul Ryan, but Ryan is really not any more conservative than Perry, just more articulate.

3. Polls go up and down. I would not put much stock in general election polls yet; the nominee will look much more like a winner after winning a bunch of primaries. We've seen plenty of candidates hit the mat during the primaries and bounce back to win the nomination (McCain in 08, Kerry in 04) and in some cases the general election (Clinton in 92; even Reagan was declared dead after he lost Iowa in 1980).

Perry has had a tough stretch. But this is a guy who was down 20 points to Kay Baily Hutchinson and ended up clobbering her. Maybe this time he can't right the ship, but you'd be foolish to count him out just yet.

Posted by: Crank at October 5, 2011 1:08 PM

I do not want the MSM to tell the Republicans who to select to run for President! Given their total liberal bias, they will promote a person who THEY feel comfortable with as liberals. This person is likely to be a RINO. Also, I don't beleive their polls are very reflective of the US voting population.

I'd rather run a very conservative person who will bring conservative principles to Washington. What better time to do this then when the Democrats have a loser on their hands.

No, when you have your enemy down, that is not the time to go soft. We have to "kill" the progressivism/socialism ideas now! What better time to show the difference in how well conservatism can run the country vs. progressive/socialism.

The time is now!

Posted by: Lee at October 5, 2011 1:21 PM

Are you saying the corporations which own the MSM are liberally biased? Wow. Never thought corporate America would catch on that conservative ideology is a failure every time it's been tried. Do you think it was when conservative ideology crashed the global economy and had to bailed out with trillions of government dollars that gave these corporations the clue?

Posted by: Berto at October 5, 2011 2:57 PM

But overall, it's a false choice to suggest that every primary is mega-RINO Castle vs totally unelectable O'Donnell.

It's a false choice? Lol. Who are you, Obama?

But actually, I agree. Romney is no Castle. And Perry is no O'Donnell. The differences between them are really quite minor in the grand scheme of things. Which is why I think electibility is the most important issue.

It's similar to the Dems in 2008 - the differences among Obama, Clinton and Edwards were minute. They spent hours upon hours discussing the details of their details, like whose healthcare plan did exactly what. And as it turns out, the final Obamacare bill used the detail that Obama most criticized Clinton over (individual mandate), so the entire primary campaign was completely irrelevant in respect of the details of their various healthcare plans. Same with today's GOP choices. WHO CARES about parsing words about exactly what they think about healthcare. If the GOP wins both houses of Congress, they will pass a bill to repeal Obamacare and make some other health care changes. And the President, if he is a Republican - whether Perry or Romney or Cain - will sign it. The minute details about what they think about healthcare is pretty irrelevant.

Posted by: A.S. at October 5, 2011 4:37 PM


First of all, my sympathies for the multiple burdens falling on your and your wife's shoulders.

How quickly the right forgets history.

Romney's full term as a governor of a major state is not suffieicnt executive experience, but a half term as governor of a backward "welfare" state is? How does that work exactly?

During the runup to passage of health care reform legislation, the cliche of the right was "repeal and replace." E.g., In the debates, however, all one hears is repeal. What happened to the replace? Just let 'em die?

Posted by: Magrooder at October 5, 2011 5:52 PM

Magrooder, as you should recall, I've been making this point about Romney since 2007. I think experience is crucially important in picking a presidential nominee. I'm not saying Romney would be unqualified to do the job, and therefore - other issues with Romney aside - I wouldn't have a problem with him as, say, a VP candidate. I think it's likely the GOP will have a VP candidate who has not served multiple terms as a governor. Certainly the Democrats have run people like Edwards for VP (and, of course, Democrats can't talk after running Obama, with no executive experience at all, only one unfinished term in statewide office and the rest of his career as a backbench state legislator; see how well that turned out).

But my strong preference is for a nominee who is battle-tested in office, and there's no question that Romney's resume in office is short. I assume you're referring to Palin (who, BTW, just finally ruled herself out as a candidate a few minutes ago), and I have long regarded Palin's experience as less than I'd like to see (all things being equal) in a nominee, but recall as well that Palin had a variety of other experiences in office (including two terms as a mayor) to add, whereas Romney's only won the one election. Ditto Chris Christie, who ran a major US Attorney's Office for six years.

Posted by: Crank at October 5, 2011 6:24 PM

Seems to me that Romney's executive experience - as CEO of Bain & Co., co-founder of Bain Capital, CEO of the Salt Lake olympics, and Govenor of Massachusetts - is superior to any of the candidates, Perry included (we know that the Texas governor is relatively weak).

If your priority is executive experience, then you should be for Mitt.

Posted by: A.S. at October 6, 2011 12:17 PM


I've never been as enamored with "executive experience" as a necessary qualification for President as you. Also, given the GOP's determination from day one to stand on partisanship alone and oppose Obama no matter what, he's achieved a fair amount -- e.g., health care reform, saving the economy from the Bush Depression, showing Darth Cheney it isn't necessary to invade countries willy-nilly to fight terrorists.

I understand why you oppose Mitt -- who knows what, if anything, he actually believes in. My problem with Perry is the same one I had with Palin, he seems ominously stupid with no curiousity and his character is questionable.

Posted by: Magrooder at October 6, 2011 4:56 PM

Oh. I keep forgetting to write, I love the title of your post. Very funny.

Posted by: Magrooder at October 6, 2011 4:57 PM

The problem with our buddy David Brooks is that he comes to his political positions via emotion, then marshalls quasi-factual arguments to defend them. Not authentic, you see, and not behaving like a cool-headed analyst.

Contrarywise, the problem with Mitt Romney is a lack of political emotion that shows in his changing positions as he attempts to gain favor with whatever political block appears to swing the most weight at the time. Compare with Rick Santorum who has little chance of gaining nomination in part because of too passionate an approach. Romney is sensed as inauthentic due to the seeming lack of any passion beyond personal ambition.

There was never any doubt about whether Reagan felt passionately about the ideas he espoused, nor did many vote for him on the basis of reputed executive experience. His success was based on educating and leading the public, the very abilities which candidates like Romney and Huntsman rarely demonstrate.

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