Even when he’s mid-pander, you always know that he [Romney] knows that it’s all just a freak show, and you can always sense that he’d rather be at a policy seminar somewhere, instead of just forking red meat. There’s a highly competent chief executive trapped inside his campaign persona, in other words, and the only way to liberate him is to put him in the White House!
This is an … unusual argument. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong: There were probably people who said the same thing about George H.W. Bush during his lackluster 1988 race — and he did turn out to be a reasonably good president, all things considered. But there’s still an element of absurdity about it. I believe that Mitt Romney is a more serious person, and would probably be a better president, than his campaign style suggests. But issue by issue, policy by policy, that same campaign style makes it awfully hard to figure out where he would actually stand when the pandering stops and the governing begins. In the last couple years, Romney has taken high-profile positions that I agree with (opposing the G.M. bailout), high-profile positions that I disagree with (opposing the START Treaty), and high-profile positions on issues I’m uncertain about (the current tax deal). But because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.
Something that helps make sense of Romney’s positioning is its largely reactive quality. Despite his past claims that he understands leadership, he never leads on any issue. During the presidential campaign, Romney endorsed granting Detroit a huge subsidy when he thought it might help him in the Michigan primary. Later the same year, he fiercely opposed bailing out Detroit, because he perceived that support for the auto industry was not useful to him. He supported the TARP when that was the default Republican leadership position to take, and has since become a fierce critic of the management of the TARP once he realized that being identified as pro-TARP was politically toxic. The candidate who famously said that he “liked mandates” and has endorsed a mandate as the “conservative position” when he wanted to brag about his achievements cannot abide the individual mandate when it positions him against the health care bill. In other words, he has the ability to position himself for short-term political advantage rather well, but seems to have no notion of how to take one position–whether he “really” believes it or not–and stand by it for more than a year or so if there is some brief advantage to be had in changing positions in the meantime. This is what creates the impression that he has no enduring goal or vision other than the acquisition of political office and influence. All the while, he has the insufferable habit of embracing each and every new position with the zeal of a convert, convinced that he now has the moral authority to denounce anyone who disagrees, and then casually abandoning or neglecting the issue when something else shiny catches his attention.
My guess is that Romney doesn’t “really” have a stand on any of these issues, but what is annoying is not simply Romney’s lack of principle. Many and possibly most politicians are not that deeply committed to principles, and that’s to be expected, but Romney attaches a degree of smugness and sanctimony to the exercise that is genuinely obnoxious. What should be bothersome to his supporters is that his pandering is so impermanent and fleeting that he inspires no confidence that he will be in the same place a year or two from now. Very simply, he can’t be counted on and can’t be trusted.
The incoherence of his criticism of the tax deal is comparable to some of his nonsensical attacks on New START. Romney wants to find something wrong with virtually every element of the tax deal, and he wants to have it both ways on each element. Adding to the deficit is wrong, but the rates must be made permanent! One part of this is soulless pandering, another part of it is Romney’s desire to appear to be a superior technocratic expert, and finally there is evidently a desire to avoid making difficult decisions regarding trade-offs. This leads him to align himself politically with rejectionist ideologues while reinforcing his reputation as a “trimming” pragmatist and establishment Republican. By trying to have it both ways in his positioning, Romney does not enjoy credibility as a hard-liner and obtains none of the advantages of being a flexible deal-maker.
On the treaty, he objects to the verification regime proposed in the treaty, but he doesn’t want to ratify the treaty, which would at least put a verification regime in place instead of the lack of verification that we have now. Instead of staking out a firm position for or against arms control as represented in the treaty, Romney wants to pretend that he is both far more interested in arms control than treaty supporters and simultaneously more hostile to the outrageous sell-out of American advantages than the fiercest hawks. He argues that the treaty should be voted down because tactical nukes haven’t been included in a strategic arms reduction agreement, which is silly, but then complains that the treaty harms our national security because it has done nothing to reduce Russian tactical nukes, and that is simply irrational. If Romney were truly concerned about Russian tactical nukes, he would be eagerly advocating on behalf of the treaty, since there will be no chance of negotiating on tactical nuclear weapons if this agreement falls apart. Many of his objections to New START are ill-informed or ignorant, which is all the more damning when he claims to have greater insight than the consensus of the entire military and most arms control experts, but many of the arguments he uses try to have it both ways.