So on Wednesday night it might be risky for Romney not to take risks. But what can he do? He might add to his menu of policies by embracing, say, the idea of breaking up the largest banks, a sound policy that would subvert the caricature of him as rapacious capitalism embodied.
Let me say first that this is a sound policy. It is exactly the sort of thing that a serious and principled pro-market conservative would propose to set himself apart in an election contest. That is the first hint of why Romney will never endorse it. Romney won’t endorse this idea, but it is not simply because he embodies a caricature of “rapacious capitalism.” It is because he has no interest in distinguishing himself as a pro-market, rather than pro-business or pro-corporate, Republican, and he has no conservative principles that would lead him to take this position otherwise. He can’t embrace this view because he is a pro-bailout corporatist. Romney is hardly alone in this. His opponent is not noticeably different in terms of how he has governed, and most leading national politicians aren’t, either. For some reason, proponents of breaking up the banks keep pitching the idea to Romney as if there were one chance in a million that he would ever agree.
Will’s pitch is half-hearted, and he doesn’t really believe it himself, but there is still the conceit that Romney could seize on major banking reform as a partial solution to his political woes. It is significant that Will doesn’t really try to sell the proposal on its merits, but sees it as a useful way to deflect attention from Romney-as-capitalist-caricature. That it requires such a large distraction should tell us something about how much this portrayal of Romney is a caricature and how much of it is an accurate, albeit unflattering, portrayal of the man.
Of course, one of the reason for Romney’s woes is that everyone understands that Romney would never do anything so imaginative or politically courageous as calling for breaking up the banks. Even if he accepted the merits of the argument, which he probably doesn’t, that isn’t the sort of politician he is. If Romney were to pay lip service to this idea in a debate, many would dismiss it as just the latest attempt to tell the audience what they want to hear, and they would be right. One reason Romney inspires so little confidence and so much distrust is that it would never occur to anyone that he would follow through on such a policy, and it would never occur to him to take an interest in that policy in the first place. “Only Nixon could go to China,” as the saying goes, but Nixon has to want to go. Romney doesn’t, and never will.