This Is Why Conservatives Can't Have Nice Conservative Policies

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Mitt Romney's story is a case study: Movement publications and think-tanks put electoral victories before principles.

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In the conventional telling, Mitt Romney started out as a Massachusetts moderate, failed to win the 2008 GOP primary, watched as the Republican Party took a sharp right turn, and refashioned himself as "severely conservative," permitting himself to be co-opted by the conservative movement. Versions of this story are repeated both by Romney's champions on the right, who want to make sure he retains the support of the conservative base, and by liberals and progressives, who want voters to believe that Romney will govern as a right-wing extremist. Perhaps there is something to this analysis -- it's impossible to say for certain without observing an actual Romney Administration. A conservative gambler wouldn't wager on its contours.

But I think there's an alternative story about Romney that's more plausible. What I think is that Romney won the GOP nomination, despite the misgivings of so many movement conservatives, because of his weak opponents and the fact that the median GOP voter isn't nearly as conservative as Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and RedState would lead everyone to believe. He moved right during the GOP primary and at the beginning of the general election for purely strategic reasons. And if elected, he'll shape-shift as he always does, pursuing "severely conservative" policies only when it is in his political interest, and abandoning conservative principles whenever he thinks it'll help him to up his approval rating, raise money, or win reelection votes.

Movement conservatives probably haven't actually succeeded at guarding against that scenario. Based on the 2008 and 2012 cycles, they put a lot of emphasis on vice-presidential selection, though the VP has little ability to guide policy. They also demand red-meat rhetoric as if it's binding. They ought to worry more about are the tradeoffs Romney is likely to make if elected.

But they are too invested in his getting elected to pin him down.

Their difficult spot is illustrated nicely by the recent kerfuffle over Romney's tax and spending promises. Presidential candidates "lie about each other, they lie about themselves, they lie about issues they know intimately, and they lie about issues they barely understand," Jack Shafer recently wrote in his Reuters column. "If either presidential candidate met you, he'd tell you a lie within 15 seconds of shaking your hand, and if he knew he were going to meet your mother, he'd invent a special set of lies for her. Politicians lie not because they're wicked -- though some are -- but because they've learned that political markets rarely reward honest campaigners."

That's the truth.

Were movement conservative opinion-makers intent on informing rather than coddling or manipulating the rank-and-file, they'd have no problem acknowledging that, like Obama, Romney tells campaign lies. He insists, for example, that he's going to balance the federal budget, cut the deficit, spend more on the military, repeal the estate and alternative minimum taxes, keep in place the home-mortgage-interest deduction, broaden the tax base, and refrain from raising taxes on the middle class. In fact, it's wildly implausible to think he can do all of those things*, but because the conservative movement won't acknowledge as much, it is unable to discuss or to exert pressure about which promises get kept. 

In a way this is rational. Some folks at the Heritage Foundation, AEI, and National Review figure that even if Romney is lying, they'll prefer his leadership to whatever Obama would do, so getting him elected is much more important than leveling with the public about his fact-fudging. Some movement conservative pundits and think-tankers cover for his deceptions with outright hackery. More often, they write content that is technically accurate, but framed in a way that only makes sense if the intention is to obscure the fact that Romney won't be able to do everything that he is promising (and no one knows exactly which promises he'll end up breaking).

The conservative movement's election-driven, rather than truth-driven, approach may well help Republicans get elected sometimes. But it also explains how, once in office, things turn out as they did during the Bush Administration. Of course Bush responded to electoral incentives to push something like Medicare Part D, rather than staying true to fiscal conservatism -- the conservative movement was so invested in his political success, and so uninterested in fiscally prudent governance, that everyone from Paul Ryan to hackish think-tank interns were ready to give cover for any budget-busting idea Karl Rove deemed a good idea. In the long run, the dearth of truth-driven conservative opinion-making during the Bush Administration did great harm to the movement.

It looks like history is repeating itself.

Read campaign coverage from right-leaning libertarians at Reason and elsewhere, and you'll see a commitment to conveying certain truths: that all politicians lie; that Romney is not a reliable fiscal conservative; that his policy promises, intended to compensate for his unreliability, don't add up; that even if you think he's better than Obama, vigilance and skepticism are essential. Watching Sean Hannity or reading movement conservative publications, the tenor of coverage is different. There are exceptions, but the overall takeaway is that Romney is a fundamentally honest man whose promises are so mathematically possible -- and that if elected, he'll appoint conservative judges and come through for fiscal conservatives by reining in the debt without touching the military or anyone's Medicare or raising taxes.

What's far more likely is that Romney would push through tax cuts, marginally decrease welfare spending on the poor, and leave the military alone; the national debt would keep rising; the deficit would remain alarmingly high; and nothing like the Ryan budget would pass. Three or seven years hence, conservatives would earnestly ask themselves, "How did this happen again?"

Well, what else could happen, given a conservative intelligentsia that spent the last months of the campaign persuading themselves, along with their audience, that Romney is a trustworthy man and reliable champion of fiscal responsibility? An unreality of that magnitude is bound to have costs. Movement conservative elites ought to explain how it all works to their audiences. Instead they seek to "balance" mainstream media coverage by biasing content in favor of Republican politicians. The agenda of fiscal and social conservatives isn't very popular with the electorate, which is why they're the ones that Republican politicians sell out once they're elected. The big business agenda is unpopular too, but they've got lots of money, so they often get their way. That's my prediction about what the Romney Administration would be like, anyway.

____

* If you need a precise, wonky argument to persuade you that ballpark math and common sense apply in this case, Josh Barro at Bloomberg is your man. He goes through the "six studies" the Romney campaign cites to prove it's mathematically possible for him to keep all of his promises. As it turns out, four of the "studies" are either blog posts or op-eds, and it's not possible.
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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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