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Would President Romney Reform the Right?

There’s been an internal debate among TAC personnel about which outcome next Tuesday is better for the health of the right. Obama’s victory in 2008 seemed certain, at the time, to shake up conservatism, prompting a re-evaluation of everything from neocon foreign policy to the GOP’s stenography for Wall Street. But it didn’t happen then, and I’m not confident it would happen if Obama won a second term. Not only does the record of the past four years suggest not, but recollection of the second Clinton term (or for that matter, the partisan stasis of the second Reagan and Bush II terms) also weighs heavily against hope of political realignment.

A Romney win, on the other hand, raises some surprising possibilities — because the ideologues most eager to see Romney prevail are the ones who stand to lose the most when President Romney turns out not to be a true-believer. And Romney, if he’s anything, is absolutely not a true believer of any sort. Not in politics, anyway. Under Obama, neoconservatives can blend in with the rest of the right in damning the president over misadventures like Benghazi (even as they call for him to lead us into more Benghazis by intervening in Syria or ramping up to war in Iran). Meanwhile, second-term Obama will pursue the same light-footprint interventionism that has characterized his first term, and the antiwar left will be mute.

But what happens if Romney is president? A rift emerges between frustrated hawks demanding a Dick Cheney agenda and business-minded Republicans who don’t want to blow their political capital on promoting democracy and carving out a legacy for Bibi Netanyahu in the Middle East. And what happens when President Romney tries to “replace” as well as “repeal” Obamacare? On any number of issues, Romney has the potential to tear apart the cynical coalitions that presently characterize the right. Meanwhile, the left might — I’m not confident, but just might — hold Romney’s feet to the fire on war and civil liberties [1]. Drones and targeted killings and snooping on Americans might be front-page news again.

And then there’s Congress. An Obama victory next Tuesday might as well be Christmas for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who can be assured of enlarging their caucuses in the 2014 midterms. The congressional leadership is as much of a problem as the GOP’s taste in presidential nominees, and whatever helps Boehner, McConnell, Blunt, and Cantor only harms the prospects for reforming conservatism. But if Romney is president, the GOP stands to lose ground in 2014 and the Bush-era congressional leadership might just get cleaned out. Certainly its exit is likely to be hastened in contrast to the other scenario.

I recall looking around Ron Paul’s Rally for the Republic in Minneapolis’s Target Center back in 2008 and thinking this constitutionalist rebellion wouldn’t be happening if a Democrat were in the White House — because then the GOP would be back to striking its usual opposition pose as the party of liberty. It took Bush to puncture the myth of a fiscally competent, small-government GOP for a generation of young Americans. What effect would a Mitt Romney administration have on them?

The Democratic Party is intellectually dead, as Obama’s aimless administration has proven. Its greatest legislative achievement has been to pass the Heritage Foundation’s 1993 healthcare plan [2]. Its response to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has been half-hearted Keynesianism — too much for neoliberals, not enough for Paul Krugman — and a modest stimulus package. The left has no idea what it stands for or where it wants to take the country. The neoconservatives and various right-wing ideologues, unfortunately, know all too well where they’d like to take us. That’s why they have to be met by a prudent, Burkean right.

The trouble is that all this promise for rebalancing conservatism under Romney comes at the heightened risk of another war — Romney isn’t stupid, but in the face of any provocation, will he have the courage to respond in measured terms? Bush answered 9/11 not with limited strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda but with a decade-long nation-building project in Afghanistan and an utterly beside-the-point war in Iraq. What will President Romney do when put to the terror test?

Substitute one Republican name or another and that’s a question the country will sooner or later have to face. What can’t be taken for granted is that the odds of Burkean conservatism gaining a foothold in the GOP are better if Obama wins again. On the contrary: a Romney victory might, as the Marxists used to say, heighten the contradictions on the right to the point that reform becomes possible. But is it worth the gamble on more wars?

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#1 Comment By reflectionephemeral On October 31, 2012 @ 8:46 am

If the Democratic Party is enacting modest, conservative-inspired policies, does that suggest they are the “prudent, Burkean” party you’re looking for, or at least that they are far more likely than the GOP to represent those ideals?

#2 Comment By Egypt Steve On October 31, 2012 @ 9:28 am

OK, the left is “intellectually dead” because its greatest achievement was to pass the Heritage Foundation’s 1993 health care plan. Point taken.

But the sign of intellectual vitality on the Right is to go back to Burke, who, however great his achievements and ideas were, died in 1797?

#3 Comment By Daniel Baker On October 31, 2012 @ 9:52 am

That’s actually the best argument I’ve ever seen to vote for Romney. The only reason I don’t accept it is that I remember how utterly exiled and marginalized all Republican and conservative dissenters were duringthe Bush administration. The faction that controls the presidency can usually impose its own orthodoxy on the party, which would squelch reform. I think.

If Romney wins, I certainly hope McCarthy’s scenario plays out, but I still think conservative reform will be stalled until a true-believing neocon (someone like Gary Bauer) is nominated and defeated in a landslide.

#4 Comment By Sheldon On October 31, 2012 @ 10:31 am

“The Democratic Party is intellectually dead . . . .”

What a sad and inappropriate comment. Is it “intellectually dead” to want to extend health care to the uninsured? to produce health outcomes at least roughly equivalent to the superior outcomes and lower cost of the other advanced nations of Europe? to want to do something to alleviate poverty? to actually take the science of global warming seriously and to want to do something about the increasingly evident dangers to our planet? to want oversight of Wall Street and banking to prevent the kind of collapse we’re only now starting to get out from under? to want to maintain some economic support for retirees? to actually care about the growing inequality in our country, and the fact that our economic mobility – once the best in the world – now falls below many other countries, and is further falling?

Once there were conservatives like Milton Friedman who had some useful things to say about some of these problems. Those days are long gone. The only intellectual death I see these days is all Republican.

#5 Comment By Barry On October 31, 2012 @ 11:09 am

Daniel: “But what happens if Romney is president? A rift emerges between frustrated hawks demanding a Dick Cheney agenda and business-minded Republicans who don’t want to blow their political capital on promoting democracy and carving out a legacy for Bibi Netanyahu in the Middle East. ”

I’m sorry, but I can’t recall such a rift back during the Bush administration. They got along juuuuuuuust fine, with the businessmen profiting both from the war, and from the things conducted in the war’s shadows. The hawks, of course, destroyed a problematic country, put the US in a heavy ground-casualty war in the Middle East, and (we can’t say this) killed a bunch of ayrabz, which they always wanted to do.

“And what happens when President Romney tries to “replace” as well as “repeal” Obamacare? On any number of issues, Romney has the potential to tear apart the cynical coalitions that presently characterize the right.”

The ‘replace’ and the ‘repeal’ will be conducted in such a way that the financial elites will profit (and the populist leaders will gladly betray their followers to a good financial rogering, since that is their job).

“Meanwhile, the left might — I’m not confident, but just might — hold Romney’s feet to the fire on war and civil liberties. Drones and targeted killings and snooping on Americans might be front-page news again.”

Yes, but the elites can live with this quite nicely.

Daniel, what’s the point of this post?

#6 Comment By john personna On October 31, 2012 @ 11:12 am

It really seemed to me that the right was willing to accept anything GWB did as, by definition, conservative. Medicare Part D, as opposed to free trade in drugs from Canada. I’m sure a Romney presidency would similarly lead to a new consensus on conservatism, but it could emerge as anything. The fundamental is uncertainty, as a Schrodinger’s candidate becomes a president with every option under the sun.

#7 Comment By collin On October 31, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

No…I believe most conservatives don’t really trust Romney as one of them. Who knows how Erik Erickson will react if Iran is not bombed soon enough. Or if Romney does anything to compromise on abortion or even birth control, there will an outburst.

Can we accept the economy is staganant because of the financial crash? In reality the economy had a very strong growth after the Volcker/Reagan 1982 recession. The debt growth of the household grew too much and lots of leverage. Neither Rs or Ds really had any solution.


#8 Comment By Uncle Vanya On October 31, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

I’ll believe the right has been reformed only when the neocons are expelled and when members of the GOP stop drooling whenever they hear the term “free” trade agreement.

#9 Comment By reflectionephemeral On October 31, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

Can we accept the economy is staganant because of the financial crash?


See “5 Historical Economic Crises and the U.S.”, a post at The Big Picture from Feb. 2008 on Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper on the (likely brutal) upcoming recession. The early 1980s US recession isn’t a good comparison.

And we’ve weathered the storm quite well. See Josh Lehner’s post, “Checking in on Financial Crises Recoveries”, on how our recovery compares to past post-financial crisis recoveries.

As to why:

in a survey of leading economists conducted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, 92 percent agreed that the stimulus succeeded in reducing the jobless rate. On the harder question of whether the benefit exceeded the cost, more than half thought it did, one in three was uncertain, and fewer than one in six disagreed. Or consider the widely despised bank bailouts. Populist politicians on both sides have taken to pounding the table against them (in many cases, only after voting for them). But while the public may not like them, there’s a striking consensus that they helped: The same survey found no economists willing to dispute the idea that the bailouts lowered unemployment. Do you remember the Republican concern that Obama had somehow caused gas prices to rise, a development that Newt Gingrich promised to reverse? There’s simply no support among economists for this view. They unanimously agreed that “market factors,” rather than energy policy, have driven changes in gas prices. … The Booth poll couldn’t find a single economist who believed that cutting taxes today will lead to higher government revenue — even if we lower only the top tax rate.

(From a Bloomberg article, “The U.S. Economic Policy Debate Is a Sham”).

#10 Comment By Besomyka On October 31, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

I don’t think the Right will change unless it suffers prolonged defeat such that they see no other way to achieve electoral success.

One way would be if Obama wins, Dem keep Senate and House remains the same in this cycle, and then they lose the House as well in the mid-term.

If, on the other hand, they keep achieving success, I don’t see how they would change plans. As long as the traditional conservatives (of which I considered myself to be) are unwilling or unable to change the party dynamic within, it will require an external push.

#11 Comment By Sean Scallon On October 31, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

The danger of Romney’s presidency is that because politics alone dictates what decisions he makes, he’ll make decisions based on giving the different factions of the party what they want to continue to ensure their support. Indeed, most of these factions really don’t see Romney as a leader, but simply as a enabler of their plans. He’ll give those interested in the budget tax and spending cuts; he’ll give those interested in social policy changes on abortion and he’ll give those interested in foreign policy the bombing they’ve wanted of Iran and the intervention they’ve wanted in Syria. In other words, you would simply have a replay of the Bush II Administration where the “decider” makes the decisions his advisers and the party activists want him to make, a puppet presidency. I don’t see how reform is possible if those interested in maintaining the status quo get what they want regardless of the consequences to country. They may be contradictions but hey, at least it puts off a primary fight in 2016.

But this also assumes the Romney will have a Republican Congress to work with in 2013. There is a very good chance the Democrats, once again because of lousy candidates, will still control the Senate, which will completely change the dynamics of the situation. Will said Democrats become as obstructionist as the Republicans were during Obama’s term now that they realize they can get away with it, or will Romney see an opportunity to build a coalition with them and like minded Republicans and Democrats in the House and isolate the bulk of the GOP House caucus? How will a reform scenario work then?

The only way, I suspect, reform will gain a foothold among conservatives is continued defeat of their present model of campaigns and political rhetoric. Losing control of the House might do the trick but no expects that to happens (and indeed Cantor’s troops may well control the chamber for the next 10 years.) Something has to puncture the alternative narrative they’ve constructed for themselves and I’m afraid the only thing that will do so is watching Obama and the Democrats run the country for the foreseeable future. They may not be brimming with ideas but I will disagree they don’t know where they are going. They know exactly where they are going, to place where only a strong, central and decided secular government can run the country and there’s no alternative. They simply are waiting for the demographics to run its course. And in reality, no matter who gets elected, the trends toward that journey will continue. The GOP and conservatives in reality, won’t adjust until electoral extinction becomes a real possibility.

#12 Comment By PMMDJ On November 1, 2012 @ 10:52 am

Romney hasn’t shown any evidence of standing up to the party so far, I see no reason he would do so in the future.

#13 Comment By phelps On November 1, 2012 @ 11:37 am

I’ll take on that Chicago Survey.

Of course the costs exceeded the benefit. Anyone can prop up a failing business by infusing cash into it, but it was the business models which were failing. No amount of cash can repair that.

The bank bailouts are based upon what your definition of “success” is. Of course the banks didn’t go out of business, which is only a good thing for those employed by those banks. However, bad behavior was rewarded and those banks that were bailed out will not change a polluted culture, but will seek a bailout every time their bets go bad using the same propaganda as an example of how to extort $ from an already battered tax base.

There may be some market factors at work in rising gas prices, but those are not based upon a free market just a manipulated market. We have so many laws that are poorly written and being interpreted by people whose only purpose is to justify their existence via mission creep. The U.S.C. and C.F.R. are too voluminous and your head will hurt trying to sort out what appears to be laws written by six year olds.

If you want to swallow propaganda whole, then be my guest, but don’t quote to us as if it is the Holy Grail, or final authority on anything. It could be simply CYA for people who screwed-up.

#14 Comment By Ben, Okla. City On November 1, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

I’m voting for Romney for the reasons DL mentions. 2 months ago, I wasn’t going to vote for either one, but I’ll try almost anything to shake up the current situation on the right.

I’m basically counting on the fact that Romney has lied about everything up to now. If elected, he can shake the etch-a-sketch again and maybe come up with something that ticks off both the neocons and the moral majority.

#15 Comment By Austin Rebreh On November 1, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

A Romney victory would not inspire any reform. In 2008, a majority of the candidates did not try to run away from Bush’s positions. True, McCain tried to distance himself from Bush’s record but not this positions.

#16 Comment By Rossbach On November 1, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

I don’t believe a Romney victory will help reform the GOP. The party leadership is more likely to regard his election as evidence of their own success.

Both the major parties are substantially corrupt and wholly self serving. An entirely new political mass movement is needed to ensure our national survival, but a worse national crisis than an economic recession would be required for that to happen.

#17 Comment By EngineerScotty On November 1, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

I suspect that there’s more agreement that the right needs reform, than agreement as to what that entails.

#18 Comment By Robert Pickard On November 1, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

Romney just wants to be President. Governance is his secondary concern. William Lloyd Garrison’s observation re Aaron Burr summerizes Romney. “As he revealed himself to my moral sense, I saw he was destitute of any fixed principles”. If you want to influence Romney, be the last one to leave the room.

#19 Pingback By Romney Is an Impediment to Burkean Conservatism | The American Conservative On November 1, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

[…] Dan McCarthy’s hope about the possible implications of a Romney victory, I think it may be time to hear […]

#20 Comment By Myron Hudson On November 1, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

My concern is that once Romney fulfills his ambition to be president, he will simply be the puppet of his Bush II advisers and backers, because that’s how things work. It’s not who is President that counts, it’s who they bring with them. I’m pessimistic, obviously, but I figure that no matter who wins this election, we all lose.

Beyond the White House: The fact that a Democrat presided over the enactment of the Heritage Foundation’s 1993 health care plan over intense opposition by the plan’s original supporters proves to me that both parties are intellectually dead, not just one

#21 Comment By Brutus On November 1, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

Romney? I think he is more likely to totally destroy the conservative movement.

#22 Comment By Aaron Gross On November 2, 2012 @ 1:22 am

Obama’s victory in 2008 seemed certain, at the time, to shake up conservatism, prompting a re-evaluation of everything from neocon foreign policy to the GOP’s stenography for Wall Street.

Ahem. It didn’t seem certain to all of us. Some predicted pretty much what happened: that the GOP would stay on the same path it had been on before 2008, and that conservative self-criticism would be shallow and self-serving.

#23 Comment By Liberal Steve On November 2, 2012 @ 11:08 am

I think Romney will be the president Norquist wants and will sign anything the GOP puts in front of him. His choice of a running mate has shown that he has every intention of getting in bed with neo-cons and staying there. Rather than cause a rift, a Romney presidency would simply legitimize the radical right — and pull the left further right with it — perhaps forcing the Democrats to become the illusive Burkean conservatives.

#24 Comment By Geoff Guth On November 2, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

This argument, like many others, relies on the existence of a “true” Mitt Romney that holds dear the same political values as whatever blogger is pushing this thesis. So in this case, the “true” Mitt Romney is a Burkean conservative.

The problem is that the evidence suggests that there is no “true” Romney. He holds whatever values he needs to in order to proceed through the cursus honorum. He’s been everything to everyone, espousing positions designed to pander to everyone from gays and moderates to social conservatives and tea partiers. The point being that his values reflect whoever he’s standing in front of at the moment, then just as easily cast aside.

This suggests a weakness of character and intense desire to people-please. Far more so than most politicians. There’s literally nothing there. This has the effect of making it easy to project whatever political fantasies you may have on to him.

The ironic thing is that this is precisely how conservatives explain Obama’s 2008 win. Yet Obama at least had something the Democrats could latch on to at his core (hence the perhaps unwise focus on healthcare). Romney has no loyalties whatsoever, not even to his country (viz. Bain’s offshoring, his hiding assets overseas, etc.)

He is, however, the perfect avatar of the loosely American, transnational power elite. He does quite clearly believe in amassing power and money for its own sake, like many of his peers.

This essentially means that we are meant to believe that Wall Street and the corporate elite will somehow suddenly decide to go Burkean. I’d suggest that that’s a highly unlikely event and represents wishful thinking of the most desperate kind.

You’ve got better chances with the powerball.

#25 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On November 2, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

Geoff, read the piece again: I’m arguing that precisely because Mitt is untrue to everyone, his presidency may create a more fluid environment for conservatism. Whatever Burkean elements seep into a Romney administration will be the result of necessity; given the economic and strategic realities the country is facing, presidential ideology will be constrained. There’s still plenty of opportunity for a Republican president to get up to mischief, but the likelihood seems to me that the right will be faced with harder choices under Romney than it would under Obama.

#26 Comment By Dave B. On November 2, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

I will not vote for Romney. He is a super flip-flopper.

He says he will defund Planned Parenthood. When he was Mass. governor he was a fan of PP. You don’t believe me? Here is a copy of the PP questionnaire he filled out:


He was a big pro-Choice man, but when he started to run for president he decided to switch sides and calls himself pro-Life. That is not credible. The man is clearly lying.

His record on gay marriage? The facts are not widely known outside Massachusetts. He told a gay newspaper in Boston that he was more pro-gay than Sen. Ted Kennedy. Proof?

Here’s the actual cover of the gay newspaper with Romney and a blaring headline:


Romney favors “civil unions” and refused to support a Mass. ballot question that would have banned gay marriage and civil unions. You did not know that?

Moreover, judges have ruled that civil unions must be transformed into marriage. So that leaves Romney as favoring gay marriage, in effect.

I will not say more about how – ahem – conservative magazines haveovered up Romney’s true record because then this post will never see the light of day. Get my drift, TAC?

#27 Pingback By What a Romney Victory Would Mean for the Right | Notes & Observations On November 3, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

[…] Daniel McCarthy offers an alternative analysis. He argues that the Ron Paul movement only caught on the way it did because of the dissident right’s profound disappointment with the presidency of George W. Bush. A corollary to this observation (which McCarthy does not mention) is that the Tea Party–born in opposition to a Democratic President–has proven itself directionless and easily co-optable. When the Democrats are in power, it’s easier for different elements of the right to band together and pose as the party of liberty, even if most of those elements are profoundly anti-liberty. […]