Here is a case for Mitt Romney, albeit one I don’t expect his campaign to make. And make note of this caveat from the beginning: This post is not an endorsement, only food for thought.
We all know by now one of the conservative knocks on Romney: When campaigning for offices in Massachusetts, he often professed squishy-to-outright-liberal positions on such issues as abortion, guns, gay rights, taxes and immigration, only later to adopt far more conservative positions on those same issues once he decided to run for president. Reverse course on one issue — as Ronald Reagan did regarding abortion — and you can claim a genuine change of heart. Do it on a number of issues, and you get labeled an untrustworthy flip-flopper.
We also know by now one of the other other conservative knocks on Romney: While serving as governor and working with a liberal legislature, he actually acted on some of these squishy-to-outright-liberal positions. His health reform is of course the most prominent example. (Spare me the talking point that some conservatives once favored an individual mandate to purchase health insurance; every time Romney describes his reform as something that was “right for Massachusetts” and still popular there, he is acknowledging that, on the whole, it was a liberal reform for a liberal state.)
So, from a purely cynical standpoint: If the argument is that conservatives can’t trust Romney because he once advocated liberal positions, shouldn’t we also consider that he did act on those liberal positions — and might also be likely to act, alongside a conservative Congress, on the conservative positions he now advocates?
In other words, if we assume Romney will say anything to get elected — and then do what he said so that he can be re-elected — why not assume he will act mostly conservatively if elected president?
Again, that’s not a very high-minded way to look at him, which is one reason his campaign probably won’t make such a case.
But every time I hear or see people referring to Romney’s flip-flopping, I can’t help but think that he didn’t flip-flop until after he decided to leave state office and run for national office. He essentially did then, in Massachusetts, what he’d said he would do then and there. So, even if you believe Romney speaks and acts only in his electoral self-interest, should you not also believe he will find it in his electoral self-interest to govern conservatively after campaigning as a conservative?
The closest I’ve seen anyone come to making this argument was National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru in his endorsement of Romney, when he contrasts Romney with Obama rather than with other Republicans:
If Mitt Romney becomes president, he will almost certainly be dealing with John Boehner as speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. While they, too, have their conservative detractors, they are the most conservative congressional leaders Republicans have had in modern times, and they will exert a rightward influence on the Romney administration. If they send him legislation to repeal Obamacare, cut taxes, or reform entitlements, he will sign it where Obama would veto it. If at some other point in his presidency a liberal-run Congress sends him tax increases, he will veto them where Obama would sign. Compared with President Obama, a President Romney would do more to protect the defense budget.
I see three potential objections to the line of thinking I’ve suggested. The first is very weak: Romney is really a liberal at heart and is just saying conservative things now so that he can get into office and govern liberally. I don’t believe that, and I don’t think many other people do, either. For starters, if Romney’s over-arching goal is to pursue liberal policies, why not wait until after Barack Obama leaves office? (If you believe Romney would be more liberal than Obama, I have nothing to say to you.) And if Romney is really a liberal at heart, why wouldn’t he have run as a Democrat from the get-go, given that he was running in Massachusetts of all places?
The second potential objection is less easily dismissed: In the general election Romney would tack toward the center, thinking there is no situation in which Republicans will abandon him and contribute to Obama’s re-election — and that he will then be more beholden to governing squishily than conservatively. I think Romney would be miscalculating if he believes all that, but I guess it’s possible.
The third potential objection may be the toughest to overcome: Should Congress flip back into totally Democratic hands in, say, 2014, then Romney, lacking a true or strong ideological orientation, will perceive that governing liberally is the best way to win re-election. Now, he would certainly have to expect to be primaried in that event, probably successfully, so I’m not sure he would flip even then. But if you go for the pure electoral self-interest theory, this scenario is at least plausible.
Personally, I don’t think any of those three scenarios is more likely than the case I outlined before them. So, I would expect a Romney nominated by the GOP after campaigning as a conservative to govern like a conservative for the most part — which is as much as can be said for either President Bush, and perhaps a future President Gingrich.
That may not be enough to win him the nomination. And, to reiterate, it’s not enough to win an endorsement from me today. But for those who distrust Romney because of the differences between his words now and his words then, I think it’s worth considering the similarities between his words then and his actions then — and what that may foretell about the impact of his words now.
– By Kyle Wingfield