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Can Mike Lee Make Romney a Rugged Communitarian?

When the news broke this weekend that Willard Mitt Romney looks to be seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency one more time, the conservative reaction in much of the media was a mix of laughter and grim disbelief.

As expected (and necessarily, given 2012’s results) the Romney camp has been persistently messaging that “this time will be different.” Or in language Mitt might be comfortable with, “past performance does not necessarily predict future results.” So let’s, for the sake of argument, think through how 2016’s Mitt Romney could actually be different.

First, we have to look at where Mitt is. A 67-year-old long-term unemployed former Staples director, Romney has spent the past two years with grandchildren and his extended family, heartily denying any interest in renewing his former job search. After so recently failing in a campaign mostly distinguishable for its lack of authenticity, one would think that the only way for Mitt to be emotionally up for another run is to cut himself loose to simply be the man he was always reported to be: a loving, decent, warmly awkward family man fiercely committed to his church and community. That is the “Mitt” [1] that the Romney 2012 advisers bizarrely didn’t want voters to see.

According to Politico‘s survey [2] of former Romney advisers, Mitt sees a new campaign being built around three pillars: poverty, middle-class mobility, and a muscular foreign policy. Politico notes that poverty has become a passion of Mitt’s former running mate Paul Ryan following inner-city tours conducted by civil rights leader Bob Woodson.

The question is how a man described by one of his supporters as “the worst communicator in the world [with] no message,” who in the immortal words [3] of @DragonFlyJonez [4] “reminds me of every boss I ever hated,” and who reportedly chalked up his 2012 rejection to “gifts” showered by President Obama to young and poor voters, could possibly come up with a credible message to sell about his poverty-fighting sincerity.

Fortunately, yesterday morning at the Heritage Foundation, Romney’s co-religionist Sen. Mike Lee gave a speech [5] laying out just such a message:

But as I see it there is one issue – one challenge facing the American people today – that rises above the rest in its complexity, its magnitude, and the reach of its consequences. Directly or indirectly it affects nearly every other public issue you can think of, and should therefore be placed squarely at the center of our reform agenda.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, that issue is the family – its increasing importance and its declining stability – and I believe it may be the single defining challenge of our time.

What makes Lee’s message particularly promising—and important—is that he acknowledges the economic as well as the cultural pressures that have dramatically reshaped the state of the American family. Conservatives all too often treat the family as an institution that exists outside of economics, a natural byproduct of rightly ordered souls. The decline of stable, intact families and the rise of premarital childbearing are seen solely as signs of moral decline and social dissolution, rather than also being results of escalating economic pressures on Americans at each stage of life. That habit has been particularly convenient for the GOP’s power brokers as it has meant that social conservatism has not threatened corporate conservatism’s monopoly on fiscal policy priorities.

Lee counters,

Many of the men retreating from marriage today are not doing so confidently. They’re not defiantly rejecting tradition and embracing postmodern values. No. For many, their retreat from marriage is a constrained, insecure choice, driven by a lack of social and economic opportunity. So our pro-family, anti-poverty agenda must account for both sides of the coin.

Lee’s “pro-family, anti-poverty” agenda goes beyond his child tax credit proposals to include criminal justice reform to reunite vulnerable young men with their fathers, and he points to “transportation, labor, and housing systems that make it harder for parents to find decent jobs, get by without two full-time incomes, or make it home in time for dinner with the kids.”

A social conservatism more focused on strengthening families than fanning culture war flames, motivated by a modest economic populism, and demonstrating an understanding of the full range of pressures working- and middle-class Americans are under, could be truly formidable. Lee’s rugged communitarianism [6] derives in part from his understanding of the Mormon settlement of Utah, and the tremendous civil society networks that have grown out of his church. Mitt Romney would seem as likely of a candidate as any to be able to grasp the roots of such an appeal to family and community.

In the end, is Mitt Romney the man to carry that banner all the way to the White House? Almost certainly not. Too much of 2012 Mitt was the real thing as a candidate, a corporate consultant who lost four-to-one among voters whose top priority was a candidate who “cares about people like me.” And if Politico is to be trusted, Romney’s circle is already teeming with more excuses for his 2012 failure than sound acceptances of their shortcomings. What’s more, the 2016 field will be much stronger, with faces much fresher in a country desperate for a change.

However, if Romney splits enough support from Jeb to weaken them both, he could conceivably still play kingmaker, and grant the full family-friendly reform platform to another candidate (John Kasich? Marco Rubio?) along with his financial network.

There would be something altogether fitting about the successful reform of the Republican party in 2016 coming about through the political redemption of Mitt Romney.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Can Mike Lee Make Romney a Rugged Communitarian?"

#1 Comment By Derek Leaberry On January 14, 2015 @ 8:23 am

Forget about it. Romney is a spineless chameleon without a soul. More than any politician in modern history, Romney will say anything to get elected.

#2 Comment By Ken T On January 14, 2015 @ 10:48 am

“A social conservatism more focused on strengthening families than fanning culture war flames, motivated by a modest economic populism, and demonstrating an understanding of the full range of pressures working- and middle-class Americans are under, could be truly formidable.”

Absolutely true – as long as the person promoting that concept can be seen as both sincerely believing it and capable of actually implementing policies toward that end. I can accept Sen. Lee’s sincerity, but what possibility is there that the rest of the Republican Party would ever go along with him? You are essentially talking about reversing what has been the core principle of the Rs since Reagan – unrestrained laissez-faire crony capitalism and the social Darwinism that inevitably results.

I would love to believe that you are right, but I just can’t see it happening in my lifetime.

#3 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On January 14, 2015 @ 11:22 am

Stay married, kids! That way, when the non-union construction worker gets laid off or injured, his Walmart-stocker wife can get some shifts at Lowes (no chance of more hours at Walmart, it would put her over 40) and keep a roof over the kids’ heads.

#4 Comment By balconesfault On January 14, 2015 @ 11:41 am

When you think about it … Romneycare was an epitome of communitarianism. Recognizing that inability to access affordable healthcare, and the ever-looming potential to be bankrupted by an emergency medical condition, is a massive blight on our social fabric.

But Romneycare/Obamacare aren’t exactly popular with the GOP, are they? And fwiw, Mike Lee has consistently raged against Obamacare.

When I read that Lee points to “transportation, labor, and housing systems that make it harder for parents to find decent jobs, get by without two full-time incomes, or make it home in time for dinner with the kids.” I’m reminded of the review of an earlier Lee speech:

“the anti-poverty plan that Sen. Lee presented at the Heritage Foundation was thin gruel — a rehash of failed policies, a string of lofty rhetoric, a revision of history, and a denial of the facts. I mean, where else would you hear someone say that poverty isn’t linked to an “absence of money?”

Lee seems to recognize the problems of the lower and middle classes in America. He just can’t seem to come up with any proposals that aren’t more than likely going to exacerbate those problems.

#5 Comment By Icarusr On January 14, 2015 @ 12:07 pm

What do you know, Republicans are “pro-family” and Democrats are, logically, “anti-family”, right? Depends on what you mean by pro or anti, I guess, or “family”.

Here is a list of policies that, in my view, would support “families”; you can tell me if that makes me a Mike-Lee Repub:

1. Workers should be paid decent living wages so that they can support their families. A two-parent household where the parents work should have enough income out of working one job each that they could support a decent roof over their heads and (nutritious) food on the table.

2. Nothing disturbs family cohesion and peace more effectively than illness and related stresses. At a minimum, basic family-based health care – concentrating on prevention – keeps illnesses and related stresses under control. But more important is the notion of a “public health policy” that seeks to protect the most vulnerable among us – children – from being affected by public health matters (thinking vaccination, education, etc.)

3. Speaking of education: a basic, decent and effective level of education, provided by each community, so that parents do not have give up working to teach their children, and that children are guaranteed basic skills when they are old enough to enter the workforce.

4. Family-friendly employment policies would ensure that a woman is not fired because pregnant, and that she or her partner have enough time and resources to take care of their infants. If we want people to have children, we have to make it possible and feasible for them to do so.

5. Two-parent friendly policies. One reason I have not adopted is that I truly believe that a household needs two parents. As it happens, we have entire “pro-family” sections of the society that want to make it difficult for people to get married and raise a family. Let me tell you a secret: when a child needs a parent to tend to him or her because of a bloody nose, s/he does not care if s/he has two moms or two dads or one of each.

And so on …

Or, we could ban abortion, shut down public schools, privatise health care, remove minimum wage protection and cut benefits for the poor and pretend we are pro-family.

#6 Comment By Captain P On January 14, 2015 @ 1:12 pm

I’d happily vote for Mike Lee, but Kasich, Romney, and Rubio have never deviated from the corporatist stream of the GOP. They’re only “pro-family” insofar as they are pro-life.

#7 Comment By collin On January 14, 2015 @ 2:18 pm

The man was born to be a corporate CEO so no there is not way he can be a reform conservatives.

#8 Comment By Acilius On January 14, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

Well, Senator Lee might be able to win the presidency, were he somehow to be nominated. If Jon Huntsman hadn’t run in 2012 and presented every Utahn politician with a soul-crushing cautionary tale, perhaps the senator might have decided to mount a presidential campaign in 2016. But I can’t imagine Mr Romney learning enough from Mr Lee, or from anyone else for that matter, to become a viable presidential candidate.

#9 Comment By heartright On January 14, 2015 @ 3:32 pm

More than any politician in modern history, Romney will say anything to get elected.
That ought to be a competitive advantage.

#10 Comment By Bill Martinez On January 14, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

Nothing like a little day dreaming on a cold winter day, eh?

#11 Comment By Myron Hudson On January 14, 2015 @ 5:17 pm

Romney is beyond salvage. Nobody in their right minds would trust him to be what he says, and his “muscular foreign policy” reeks of neocon fantasy.

#12 Comment By Rossbach On January 14, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

If the GOP wants to help families economically, its leadership must do something to restrict mass immigration, end illegal immigration, and stop the outsourcing of US jobs overseas. Kasich and Rubio are both open-borders advocates. If the GOP relies on them to energize the base, Billary will return to the White House in 2017.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 15, 2015 @ 9:19 am

” . . .insecure choice, driven by a lack of social and economic opportunity.”

As someone who has never been married and but few close calls, those calls in which I have bocked have been based on three factors:

spiritual ethics
political and social ethics

but economic viability has been the key turn, when the others have lined up. Even when woman has fervently made claims that it doesn’t matter.

Ohhhhh yes, it does matter.

#14 Comment By FL Transplant On January 15, 2015 @ 10:32 am

1.”A social conservatism more focused on strengthening families than fanning culture war flames, motivated by a modest economic populism, and demonstrating an understanding of the full range of pressures working- and middle-class Americans are under, could be truly formidable.” Doesn’t Rick Santorum already have this in his wheelhouse?

2. Mr Romney’s religion emphasizes self-sufficiency, but it also emphasizes family, community, and helping members of the community. It’s a shame he didn’t embody that portion of who he his with the ideas the article brings out the last time, instead of taking forward the harshest ideals of the TEA Party. Personally I think it’s too late for him to pivot again, but the opening is there for another candidate who not only will mouth the words but will act upon the ideas as well.

#15 Comment By Charlieford On January 17, 2015 @ 5:43 pm

Does anyone actually believe any president can do much about the American family? Good grief. Maybe he could get us better music while he’s at it? Because nowadays, everything sucks.

#16 Comment By Uncle Billy On January 18, 2015 @ 9:53 am

So Mitt, former CEO and champion of the rich, is now going to be an economic populist? That should be interesting to say the least. Perhaps he can take up the cause of the “poor” millionaires who have to fly first class instead of having their own Gulfstream private jet, like the billionaires have?

I can see Mitt driving around West Virginia in an old pick-up truck, trying to connect with the poor, rural whites. Yes, that will go over really well. Romney is starting to resemble a Saturday Night Live skit, but with less humor.