How Conservatives Can (Try to) Stop Romney From Governing Like Bush

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A new e-book from an unusually forthright conservative advises the right on how it can avoid the mistakes of 2001 to 2008.

Mitt Romney in front of banner - AP Photo:Steve Pope - banner.jpg
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As the American right shifts from doubting whether Mitt Romney would make a good president to championing the presumptive Republican nominee, Philip Klein, a conservative editorial writer at The Washington Examiner, has a timely warning: If conservatives are to fare better over the next four years than they did during the calamitous tenure of George W. Bush, zealous group solidarity is insufficient. They need a strategy to pressure a hypothetical President Romney to govern as a small-government conservative, an outcome that is anything but certain.

Klein's newly published e-book, Conservative Survival in the Romney Era, sets forth his recommendations, gleaned from a hard-headed analysis of what went wrong from 2001 to 2008. That approach alone makes his project an important contribution to conservative discourse. For all the Tea Party complaints about profligate spending and suboptimal policies passed during the Bush years, few conservatives understand why things went awry, their complicity, or how they might avoid a repeat the next time the political party they support comes to power. That they learn from their mistakes is in everyone's interest.

This e-book is aimed at a movement audience, and is bound to strike the general reader as needlessly doctrinaire. Conservatives "should always be focused on advancing their ideology," Klein writes, as if it has all the answers. Isn't it prudent to temper ideology with empiricism? Klein is nevertheless clearheaded in his analysis of what went wrong for the right during the Bush years. For example, Paul Ryan, Tom DeLay, and Rick Santorum are all quoted explaining why they cast votes for Bush-era legislation they found wrongheaded even at the time. The anecdotes are useful reminders of the pressure a president and the establishment of his party can bring to bear, and the frequency with which partisan loyalty is put before principle and the public.

While Romney boosters are already arguing that the former Massachusetts governor will have no choice but to govern as a conservative if elected -- that the base will rebel en masse otherwise -- Klein understands that "there's always some argument partisans will make to discourage conservatives from criticizing Republicans." As he says in a weary forecast, "In the coming months, those of us who criticize Romney from the right will be told we should save it until after November, or else we're just helping Obama. When we do so after the election -- should he win -- we'll be told he deserves a honeymoon period and needs to rack up a few accomplishments first before moving to items on the conservative agenda. Eventually, it will be that we can't weaken him before the midterm elections, and then later, that we have to loudly support him, or else he'll lose reelection to an even worse liberal boogeyman (or boogeywoman) in 2016."

But "conservatives shouldn't allow themselves to simply become an extension of the Republican Party," Klein counters. "Romney should get conservatives' support when he earns it, and criticism when he deserves it." It's unfortunate that movement conservatives need to be warned against carrying water, as Rush Limbaugh once described his function during the Bush era.

Yet who can deny that they do?

The rest of Klein's advice takes as its starting point a plausible future:

If Romney beats Obama at the ballot box, conservatives will hail him as a conquering hero, like Beowulf after he slayed Grendel. By the time he took the oath of office, Romney could feel much more secure about his support from conservatives than he did during the Republican primary. Given the amount of money it takes to campaign in the modern era, serious primary challenges to sitting presidents are unlikely. A President Romney could very logically make the calculation that conservatives are more or less stuck with him.

Why might he want to do so?

Each one of the key items on the conservative agenda (repealing and replacing Obamacare, overhauling the tax code and passing substantial reforms to the nation's entitlement programs), independently, would trigger an epic confrontation in Washington. Knowing what we know about Romney's aversion to political risk, it's fair to wonder whether he'd be reluctant to get involved in such bitter partisan battles, especially early in his presidency. He may prefer to pass a series of smaller, less controversial, bills to rack up mini-victories while assuring conservatives that he'll get to the bigger stuff later. Over the course of the presidential primaries, persistent skepticism among conservatives continued to force Romney to embrace policies that his initial instinct was to avoid, particularly on Medicare reform. This is clear evidence of Romney showing responsiveness to conservatives. But as the race moves out of the primary, their bargaining power could recede.

For the unabridged version of Klein's prescriptions for a conservative movement put in that position, purchase his book. Among the recommendations that grabbed me: elect lots of small government conservatives to Congress; apply pressure on Romney from day one; don't confuse GOP political success with conservative policy success; and focus on the most important policy priorities, which Klein defines as entitlement reform, health-care reform, and tax reform. He argues that the GOP needs to get better at persuading voters of its logic on health-care reform in particular, painting "a vivid picture for Americans of a world in which they'd be able to choose among many health insurance policies; spend their health care dollars as they see fit while retaining any money they save; have easily accessible information on doctors and hospitals providing the best outcomes at the lowest price; and be rewarded for pursuing healthier lifestyles."

Although I don't agree with all of Klein's advice, his conservative movement would be a tremendous improvement on the status quo. At least some of his admonitions are necessary before conservative successes can possibly happen. Yet his recommendations are not sufficient. He's missing important factors. It's understandable that he left them out. The conservative audience shuts down when asked to reconsider the wisdom of its foreign-policy instincts and whether the champions it elevates in the media are doing the cause more harm or good.

Any conservative interested in the subject of Klein's e-book must nevertheless confront both of the following:

National-security policy. There is nothing wrong with Klein's focus on domestic affairs. But he totally ignores war. How can Republicans reduce spending, get the deficit under control, or achieve limited, constitutionalist government if neoconservatives succeed in pushing more costly interventions abroad and even block reductions to scheduled increases in future defense spending? During the Bush years, the GOP spent lots of political capital getting its way on Iraq. It was therefore unavailable for domestic policy. Financing the fighting and occupation with more debt put us deeper in a financial hole. A whole new cabinet agency was created in the name of homeland security. Unprecedented expansions of state surveillance power and abrogations of civil liberties were perpetrated. The old saying is demonstrably true: "War is the health of the state." The GOP can't be the party of Bill Kristol and the party of limited government.

The conservative media. Klein persuasively argues that it's important for rank-and-file conservatives to focus on entitlement reform, health-care reform, and tax reform. I'd add deficit reduction to that list. He doesn't delve into what the rank and file currently focuses on or why they focus on those things. In addition to taxes and spending, the rank and file currently spends a lot of time obsessing over trivial nonsense: for example, an imaginary race war against white people; The New Black Panther Party; and a liberal schoolteacher abusing her position somewhere in America. Those are but three stories in conservative news right now, alongside the constant obsessions with liberal media bias, anything involving "God, guns, and gays," statements by Janeane Garofalo-style celebrities, and ginned-up kerfuffles we can't even presently imagine. Whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House, the right-wing media thrives on those often symbolic controversies, which exacts a heavy opportunity cost.

Is there any denying that right-wing media's most influential personalities traffic in cynical nonsense daily? See Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck. The base is too trusting of these entertainers and perennially misunderstand their incentives. Without confronting these forces, is there any chance the right will get through the next four years focusing on the most urgent of their governing priorities? It seems to me that if President Romney and his surrogates want to change the conversation to abortion or gay marriage or honor killings or antagonism toward stay-at-home moms or affirmative action or the EPA or immigration, they'll have a very easy time doing so.

The right-wing media will help them distract everyone -- and make lots of money doing it.

The right is also less able to persuade than the left partly because so many conservatives in media make no attempt to change minds. They're expending the vast majority of their effort to tell people who already agree with them what they already believe in the most polarizing language possible. Powerful market forces are creating an incentive for them to continue this behavior. Think about it. One of the most technically adept communicators in the history of the radio medium is a staunch conservative. And he willfully repels far more persuadable people than he attracts.

In doing so, he maximizes his appeal within a profitable niche.

Despite what Klein leaves out, his e-book is an intellectually honest, carefully argued first step toward improving the conservative movement as the potential Romney era nears. I hope he continues in this vein, and that others join him. If so, they'd do well to recognize that it isn't just the Republican Party whose interests sometimes diverge from folks whose goal is conservative governance. The conservative movement in its current, corrupted form is populated by lots of people whose revealed preference is to prioritize policy advances after enriching themselves, accruing power, feeling schadenfreude, and getting signed to reality TV shows, among other things. Unfortunately, the rank and file is awful at telling the difference between charlatans and champions.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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