David Frum says he’ll vote for Romney because he governs well when faced with a Democratic legislature, and he believes his election will make Democratic gains in Washington more likely:
Romney has demonstrated an ability to absorb and process information we’ve seen in no Republican candidate for president since Dwight Eisenhower. And the finest accomplishment of his governorship, Romneycare, is the work of a man who takes seriously the obligations that society owes to each and every one of its members, the 47% as well as the 53%. Romney has the capacity to excel at the job of president.
The question over his head is not a question about him at all. It’s a question about his party – and that question is the same whether Romney wins or loses. The congressional Republicans have shown themselves a destructive and irrational force in American politics. But we won’t reform the congressional GOP by re-electing President Obama. If anything, an Obama re-election will not only aggravate the extremism of the congressional GOP, but also empower them: an Obama re-election raises the odds in favor of big sixth-year sweep for the congressional GOP – and very possibly a seventh-year impeachment. A Romney election will at least discourage the congressional GOP from deliberately pushing the US into recession in 2013. Added bonus: a Romney presidency likely means that the congressional GOP will lose seats in 2014, as they deserve.
Ezra Klein, meanwhile, half agrees. He says that Romney isn’t either a moderate or a conservative – he’s a manager, who has shown great talent for improving the performance of organizations under his administration. And he’ll take cues from others as to what an organization’s mission is. So, in Massachusetts, he did a better job than many would of implementing universal healthcare in that state, which was a Democratic priority. But in Washington?
Romney is a manager. The question is: What will he be managing? The answer, in most cases, is Congress. Presidential campaigns fool us into believing the central question of U.S. politics is, “What does the president want?” But the political system is constructed around the central question of, “What will Congress pass?”
Some argue that the president holds the ultimate power to “agenda set,” even if much of that power is derived from Congress’s willingness to let him set its agenda. There’s truth to that, but it obscures the very substantive negotiations between White House and Congress. When Obama chose to push health-care reform in 2009, for instance, he did so in large part because key members of Congress also wanted to push it. If they had wanted to push cap-and-trade legislation instead, that’s probably the agenda the president would have set. Presidents trying to govern set an agenda Congress is willing to pass.
The answer, then, to the question “What does Mitt Romney think?” is this: It matters even less what Romney thinks than it matters for most presidents. Romney’s policy preferences are unusually weak, his deal-making instincts are unusually strong and his party will be unusually aggressive in policing his agenda. George W. Bush used his personal prestige to convince Republicans to vote for Medicare Part D, a debt-financed expansion of the welfare state that conservatives would typically have found noxious. Obama convinced his party to support the individual mandate, a Republican idea that he had vigorously opposed in the Democratic primary.
Romney does not have significant prestige within the Republican Party, which largely views him with mistrust. Perhaps more significant, his party has spent the past few years developing its governing agenda without him. “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference. “We just need a president to sign this stuff.”
And finally, Mark Cuban imagines an imaginary Democratic Mitt Romney, extolling the virtues of Obamneycare and promising to manage the program efficiently (something Frum is also hoping for), and, more important, defending his Bain Capital experience not as proof that he knows how to balance budgets, but as proof that he’s the right guy to run an industrial policy:
As the head honcho at Bain Capital, a private equity firm, Governor Romney made huge profits by borrowing heavily to acquire companies and then operate them with the goal of getting an operating return on capital or selling the companies for a profit. He turned the art of using leverage into an art form. I should add here that I fully understand that Bain was not and is not a slash and burn private equity firm. They put people in their acquired companies to try to improve operations rather than just slash costs. But that is not really the issue here. Governor Romney knows how to invest using debt.
The real issue is that rather than saying that he thinks it’s a horrible idea for the government to invest in companies and that he would not permit it, I really, really would love to see him take the opposite approach and own and crow about the fact that he is a MASTER of USING DEBT.
Let’s get back to our debate with a Democratic candidate Romney and a hypothetical Republican candidate.
“No one knows how to get a return on capital better than I do. I’m great at it. Look at my history. With the government’s ability to borrow at an effective tax rate of less than zero, I promise you as president that I will know better than anyone how to get a return on investment for the American people. In this time when we need to grow the economy and create jobs, we need to cut ineffective and inefficient government spending in bureaucracy and administrative and increase investment where we can get the greatest return for the American people. And you know what makes my approach all the sweeter? We are borrowing money from China DIRT CHEAP and I will invest that to create American jobs!”
I have been harping on two themes in this space for some time. First, that Mitt Romney isn’t really the problem here; the problem is his party. Second, that we’ve been having the wrong economic argument – arguing about whether taxes and spending should be higher or lower when we need to be arguing about how to deploy our national resources better. All of these writers are saying, in different ways, that Mitt Romney might be a good guy to tackle the right economic argument, if it weren’t for the fact that his party is committed to not doing so. And I think they’re right about that.
Mitt Romney would be a mediocre candidate for any party because he’s not a very natural politician. But he’s not a pathological liar (like Clinton) – he’s just an unusually bad one. And he has some very substantial personal virtues – as attested to by his long experience managing diverse organizations. If we want someone to oversee a large increase in Federal infrastructure spending, Romney seems like a great guy for the job, the kind of person who would bring in high-speed rail on time and under budget. And, as Steve Sailer said, if we want someone to oversee a sensible, gradual but substantial draw-down of American defense spending, Romney seems like a great guy for that job as well. He seems much better-suited to either job than President Obama is. And a lot of Americans seem to know that. And we actually need both of those jobs done!
But Mitt Romney can’t do either of those jobs sensibly because he’s a Republican, and the GOP is committed to, among other foolish policies, ramping up wasteful defense spending and slashing discretionary non-defense spending.
America needs two responsible governing parties, representing somewhat different coalitions of interests, who can check each other from growing too complacent or corrupt. Our political system is structured on the assumption that that’s what we have. But we don’t. And we won’t get them by pretending we already do.