President Romney Would Not Remain a Conservative

Conventional wisdom holds that he'll press the Paul Ryan agenda. But the shape-shifting consultant would never stick with an unpopular strategy for long.


So often in history, the Republican and Democratic standard-bearers in presidential elections have shaped their respective parties. So far, that isn't true of Mitt Romney, says Francis Wilkinson: "He has not shaped the party in any noticeable, let alone significant, way. The party has shaped him. To win its nomination, he has embodied the values of its most powerful and ascendant wings."

This is most evident in the realm of health care. The approach that Governor Romney implemented in Massachusetts is regarded by Republicans as an abomination because of its resemblance to Obamacare, and so Candidate Romney has pledged to take a different course if elected president. On foreign policy too, Romney has followed conservative orthodoxy rather than articulating any unexpected or unique insight. And he has embraced the Paul Ryan budget, signalling that if he's elected a major part of his domestic agenda will have been formulated within the House of Representatives.  

Having observed Romney's please-the-base strategy, Wilkinson draws a conclusion:

The only "real" Romney that matters is the Republican standard bearer currently running for president. There is no mystery about what this Romney stands for: low taxes on the wealthy, large cuts in entitlement spending (for rich and poor alike) and, as post-1980 Republican history and the Romney-endorsed Ryan budget plan both suggest, deficit financing of these and other efforts.

Romney represents the Republican Party. And the party's an open book.

What I wonder is how long Romney would represent that incarnation of the Republican Party if elected. To be more precise, I am confident that Romney will only remain loyal to Republican orthodoxy so long as doing so maximizes his popularity and the prospect of his being reelected. The guy just shape-shifts when it's convenient. There can be no doubt about that. So if elected, how long would it be advantageous for Romney to be closely allied with the  base?

There aren't any certain answers. Who knows how a war or terrorist attack circa 2013 would change the trajectory of a Romney presidency? But I can imagine a future in which the alliance between the Romney Administration and the forces of conservative orthodoxy is relatively short-lived.

Here's the thing: Paul Ryan and the Tea Partiers want to do a lot of unpopular things. As I see it, some of the things they want to do, like reforming entitlements, are good, whereas other ideas they have are bad, but these value judgments are beside the point -- the fact is that their vision of significantly less generous middle class entitlements and lower taxes for the rich is opposed by a majority of Americans, and would likely be even less popular if actually implemented.

Even repealing Obamacare without "replacing" various benefits it grants would be unpopular.

So imagine that Romney wins a close election in 2012, aggressively pushes the Paul Ryan agenda, and watches the GOP get hammered in the 2014 elections. How would he govern after that?

Answering that question isn't a matter of figuring out who the "real" Mitt Romney is, for opportunism is at his core. But neither is it correct to presume that the present agenda of the conservative base would guide the Romney Administration throughout even a single term in office.

Times change. Does anyone change with them faster than Mitt Romney?

Every president responds to public opinion and midterm election results, of course, but Ronald Reagan and to a lesser extent George W. Bush both made concerted efforts to persuade Americans of their vision. Romney isn't a persuader. As Peter Suderman put it when trying to understand him, "Consultants don't have ideology; they have strategy. Their job is to take their current client's side, whatever it is, and put a good polish on it while restoring whatever's underneath."

I suspect that, as the campaign drags inexorably on, Mitt Romney is going to regard his "clients" as being a bit farther left than his rhetoric now suggests -- and that if he wins, he'll be performing for clients that resemble the median voter of two years from now more than the Tea Partier of today. (Just as the Tea Partiers feared all along.)

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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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