Home/Daniel Larison/Why Romney Wouldn’t Be the Republicans’ Bill Clinton

Why Romney Wouldn’t Be the Republicans’ Bill Clinton

Rod Dreher comments:

Maybe — maybe — Romney has within himself the capacity to be more of a Bill Clinton figure. The difference, of course, is that Clinton was highly charismatic.

In this case, a “Bill Clinton” figure means someone who will be a “different kind” of Republican that separates himself from his party’s conventional views and theoretically reins in at least some of its ideological excesses and bad habits. The most important difference isn’t that Clinton is charismatic and Romney isn’t. That’s true, but that isn’t why Romney wouldn’t be a Clinton figure for Republicans. Clinton and the New Democrats represented a reaction to their party’s repeated defeats beginning in 1980. That reaction involved moving away from standard liberal arguments on crime, welfare, and foreign policy, among other things, and deliberately setting themselves against many of the prevailing views in their party.

This was not something that Clinton invented or imposed by himself, nor was it something that he had started doing in 1992, and it drew on arguments that neoliberals had been making since at least the early ’80s. This came from recognition by some Democrats that they were failing in presidential elections in part because their policy ideas had been tested and rejected. If there are Republicans aware of a similar problem today, they are not to be found in the Romney campaign or among its reliable supporters. That isn’t only because Romney has shaped his national political persona as an entirely conventional Republican acceptable to movement conservatives, but it’s also because the only major mistake most Republicans seem willing to acknowledge from the last decade is that there has been too much “wasteful spending.”

While that is true and important, it has become a standard excuse used to avoid looking at the party’s other failings. If anything, the emphasis on excessive spending as their party’s main failing has caused most Republicans to draw some of the wrong lessons from what went wrong in the Bush years, which is that the party simply needs to get “back to basics” and everything else will attend to itself. What’s more, the 2010 midterm victory allowed most Republicans to conclude that they had correctly diagnosed the problem despite the fact that the party’s leaders had not noticeably changed anything. The pretense of fiscal responsibility was good enough, and so it has been again in the presidential election. On everything else, the GOP remains more or less where it was on policy in 2008 for good or ill. To the limited extent that Romney might represent something other than the current party line, it is as a throwback to the last decade in which some state and national Republicans were experimenting with more activist domestic policy ideas.

Most Republicans still see no need to learn from other Bush-era mistakes, and the 2006 and 2008 defeats can still be written off as unfortunate detours, so they are not yet ready for such a “Bill Clinton figure.” There has also not been a very good opportunity for such a figure to emerge as the party’s presidential nominee. Because Republicans tend to nominate the previous runner-up, the frontrunner candidates typically don’t represent the newest leadership or ideas in the party. Insurgent candidates have almost never prevailed in Republican nominating contests, and if they represent a significant break with the party on several major issues it is even more difficult for them to compete. The other problem is that the GOP already seemed to have something like a “Bill Clinton figure” in George W. Bush when he was first elected as a “compassionate” conservative. Bushism was initially a conscious attempt to copy the success of Clinton in changing the way the GOP was perceived on domestic issues. That was before it became identified so closely with Bush’s disastrous foreign policy. Because the last attempt ended so horribly for the party and the country (and because it entailed so many bad and fiscally irresponsible policies as well), there is bound to be reluctance to make another. As we’ve seen, Romney hasn’t proposed making that attempt, and there’s no reason to expect that he will.

Rod writes earlier in his post:

The trick is to make change happen while making it seem like nothing significant is changing at all.

It might seem that way, but unfortunately this would not lead to an enduring change because it would be correctly perceived as a trick or a con. If it is to be broadly accepted for more than one or two election cycles, and if it is to do the party any good with the public, it isn’t something that can be concealed. For instance, if the GOP is ever going to give up the attachment to the aggressive and confrontational foreign policy with which it has become so closely identified in this century, that isn’t something that can be changed without everyone knowing it. Romney represents just the opposite of this: loud boasting that the party is as hawkish and belligerent as ever with only the hope that Romney might be lying about what he intends to do.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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