Do Campaigns Predict How a President Will Govern?

George Packer says Romney's rhetoric is an excellent predictor of how he'd operate, but the Bush and Obama eras suggest otherwise.

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In a typically insightful dispatch, George Packer remarks on the recent Republican habit of critiquing President Obama using the most inflammatory language imaginable -- Rick Santorum criticized him for engaging in un-American activities, for example -- and segues into analysis of Mitt Romney's bid for the nomination.

Here's how he sums it up:

Romney is like an actor who normally does investment commercials and is improbably cast in an ad for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He's doing a credible job playing an intellectual thug, because that's the only way to win the nomination.

It would be a mistake, though, to believe that, long after Iowa, once the horse race is over, and if he's elected, Romney could suddenly flip a switch, clear the air of the toxicity left behind by the Republican field, and return to being a cautious centrist whose most reassuring quality is his lack of principles. His party wouldn't let him; and, after all, how a candidate runs shapes how a President governs. In politics, once a sellout, always a sellout; once a thug, always a thug.

Is that so?

Personally, I lack confidence in my ability to predict how Mitt Romney would govern, despite giving the question a lot of thought, because the only two presidents for whom I've had the opportunity to vote, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, did not in fact govern in a way that seemed particularly shaped by the campaigns that they ran. As it turned out, George W. Bush was a divider, not a uniter, who pursued the polar opposite of a humble foreign policy, did in fact engage in nation-building, and wound up signing into law a campaign-finance reform bill he'd formerly called unconstitutional -- among other discordant notes between his campaign and tenure.

And Barack Obama? Here's how he campaigned:

  • "If we do not change our politics -- if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works -- then the problems we've been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come."
  • "But let me be clear -- this isn't just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it's about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans."
  • "We are up against the belief that it's all right for lobbyists to dominate our government -- that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we're not going to let them stand in our way anymore. Unless we're willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change."
  • "If we're not willing to take up that fight, then real change -- change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans -- will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo."

Then Obama got to Washington, D.C., and rather than make a serious attempt at changing the way the system worked, he worked within the system to pass his health-care reform bill and stimulus package. By his own logic, he guaranteed the failure of the "change" that was the centerpiece of his campaign.

Obama also campaigned as someone committed to running the most transparent administration ever. And once in office he went after whistleblowers with the zeal of a convert. He campaigned against warrantless spying, indefinite detention, use of signing statements, using the state-secrets privilege, and launching wars without Congressional approval. And yet he has proceeded to do all of those things in office, sometimes even more aggressively than his predecessor.

I don't want to go so far as to say that a campaign has no impact on how a politician is going to govern. George W. Bush cut taxes, reformed education in the way he promised, and tried to privatize Social Security. Barack Obama ended torture and made health-care reform a priority (though with the individual mandate that he campaigned against in his primary against Hillary Clinton). But in neither Bush nor Obama's case did their party "make" them govern in accordance with their specific promises or even the larger world views that they once championed.

So would Mitt Romney govern as he did in Massachusetts, or as his more recent rhetoric suggests? I'm confident that he really couldn't get away with reversing himself and embracing an individual mandate at the national level, since that has been such a sticking point during the campaign. On the whole, however, I don't think we know with anything like the certainty Packer suggests how Romney would govern. After watching him for three years, I am not even sure how Obama would govern in a second term. Immigration reform? Immigration crackdown? War in Iran?

I wish I knew.

Image credit: Reuters