Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why Mitt Romney?

March 22, 2012, 9:05 a.m.

Better Than 'Least Worst' Republican

Every four years I take a look at the Republican field of presidential candidates.

There are two reasons why I'd probably never end up voting for any of them, and at least one reason why I engage in this exercise anyway.

First, over the years I've become increasingly non-partisan, disgusted with both of our money-driven major parties, and willing to give serious consideration to thoughtful ideas from anywhere on the political spectrum.

However, my political activity, such as it has been, is based in the Democratic Party. I've been registered as a Democrat, a Precinct Co-Chair for the Democrats, a member of the Party's county central committee, a candidate for Congress in a Democratic primary, and have received three presidential appointments from Democratic presidents.

Second, no matter how wonderful a presidential candidate of either party might be, he or she brings with them a cast of thousands to which at least some deference must be paid. (Although, as President Obama has shown the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party that got him the nomination and much of the election, it need not be all that much deference.) I'm not thrilled with the national and Iowa leadership of either party. But I think the Democratic Party's gang of party members, major contributors, political consultants, staffers, lobbyists, elected officials, influence peddlers, and hangers-on would be at least marginally better than those who would surround and pressure any Republican president.

So why do I bother evaluating the Republican candidates for president?

Because, given our system, the president is virtually guaranteed to be either a Democrat or Republican -- whether chosen by the voters or the Supreme Court justices. One of the parties is going to win, and their candidate is going to govern us for better or worse. That's why I'm not interested in encouraging the nomination of the Republican candidate least likely to win. I want the Republican candidate who, if she or he wins, will do the best job.

That doesn't mean I'll be sending them money, going door-to-door on their behalf, or voting for them. But every American's conversations at the office water cooler, and family dinner table, contribute something to the national dialogue -- first reflected in public opinion polls, and ultimately in election results. So do blog entries, comments on call-in radio programs, letters to the editor in newspapers, and the other ways we express ourselves.

Of course, corporations, the wealthy -- the plutocracy -- continue to exercise grossly disproportionate influence over both parties, with their campaign contributions directly and now with their "super-pacs." As New York's Boss Tweed used to say, "I don't care who does the electing, just so long as I do the nominating." They are the ones who are doing the nominating for both parties.

But whatever the reasons for, and consequences of, our two party system, the fact is that every American has a stake in the candidates for the presidency offered us every four years by those two parties.

This round, my first Republican favorite was Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. (See, and Mitch Daniels, Once Daniels made it clear he was not running, I switched to Jon Huntsman (see "And the winner is . . . Jon Huntsman; Jon Huntsman . . . Better than 'Least Worst Republican,'" June 26, 2011; and "Jon Huntsman, Jr.," And see, from 2007, "It's Huckabee; My Republican Pick: Governor Mike Huckabee," July 24, 2007.)

Now it's Mitt Romney.

"Oh, so do you really prefer him to Rick Santorum?" a friend asked, sarcastically.

That's a cheap shot.

As I've learned more about Romney, I've become increasingly impressed with his smarts, education, experience, accomplishments, commitment to public service, and obvious managerial ability in running a presidential campaign. Today I would say of him (as I said earlier about Jon Huntsman), Mitt Romney is much, much better than just the "least worst Republican."

He has a lot more going for him than the fact that he is the obvious best choice from among the final four.

In 2007-08, as the candidates were touting their "experience" as qualifying them to be president, I gave some thought to "Just what is the experience that would qualify someone to be president?" Here's an abbreviated excerpt from an op ed column I wrote on the subject at that time:
There’s no perfect, qualifying “experience.” But two things can help.
One is experience at administering large institutions: a federal cabinet-level department, a state government, military branch, major university or corporation.

The other is the understanding and rapport earned by having worked in institutions with which a president must relate: city, county and state government; the federal executive, legislative, judicial and administrative branches; international organizations and embassies; labor unions and Wall Street, among others.
By these standards both Democrats and Sen. John McCain are unimpressive.
Nicholas Johnson, "Politics: Assessing Candidates' 'Experience,'" The Gazette, March 30, 2008, p. A9, embedded in blog, with links to many more items, in "Gazette Op Ed: Candidates' 'Experience,'" March 30, 2008.

At that time Governor Bill Richardson came the closest to the range of experiences I thought useful. Mitt Romney doesn't rank that high, given his relative lack of experience with the House, Senate, White House, and Cabinet positions. And his work with the Olympics, while useful, is not exactly the same as the State Department, an ambassadorship, or the United Nations, World Bank, IMF or other international organization. But he has been a governor (and in a state where he had to work with Democrats), which comes the closest to any training we have for the presidency, he's administered other large institutions (Bain; the Olympics; this year's campaign), and certainly has ties with Wall Street and the business community.

You may have noticed that I've said nothing so far about his likely positions on the issues, were he to become president. He would probably seldom come up with the solutions that I would. For example, if trade unionism has been, and could be again, America's shortest path to a vibrant middle class -- or if the quickest and cheapest way out of a recession is for the federal government to become the employer of last resort -- Romney would probably prefer driving a paved road (i.e., financial aid to the wealthy "job creators") to walking my dusty path to prosperity.

Many of these differences are candidly laid out in his campaign document, Believe in America: Mitt Romney's Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth, September 1, 2011 (listing "Romney for President" as the author), which is available as a pdf file from the Romney campaign Website and as free Kindle download from Amazon.

For example, in the opening section, "Day One, Job One; Five Bills for Day One; Five Executive Orders for Day One," one of the top five executive orders is "An Order to Empower American Businesses and Workers: Reverses the executive orders issued by President Obama that tilt the playing field in favor of organized labor, including the one encouraging the use of union labor on major government construction projects," p. 7. (I suspect there are a good many workers who would willingly forgo this "empowerment.") Among Romney's tax proposals are reducing the corporate tax to 25%, continuing the present low rates on capital gains, and abolishing the estate tax (currently only applied to estates over $5 million) -- proposals unlikely to do much to stimulate consumer spending by the working poor and unemployed, pp. 37-47, 154.)

Moreover, even if he wanted to give a hand up to the 99%, he would be opposed by the same special interests that President Obama is now confronting.

As for his position papers and statements during the past year, this is a Republican primary campaign, after all. Romney needs the support of the members of a party that has largely lost its rational middle. His opponents charge him with not being conservative enough! I give him (and other candidates) some slack regarding what they say and do while campaigning (within limits).

His opponents' charges that he is the "Etch A Sketch" candidate is another bum rap, in my view. Peter Grier, "Romney Etch A Sketch: Is aide's comment a present for his foes?" Christian Science Monitor, March 22, 2012 ("Asked whether Mr. Romney had moved too far to the right for the general election, [senior Romney aide Eric] Fehrnstrom said [on CNN] that the GOP hopeful would hit a reset button for the fall campaign. 'It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch,' he said. 'You can kind of shake it up and restart it all over again.' . . . Romney’s primary opponents immediately seized upon the image of an erasable toy to project their doubts about the depths of Romney’s conservatism. Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich held up Etch A Sketches at rallies on Wednesday.") Fehrnstrom's choice of metaphor may have been very unfortunate, but he spoke the truth about all candidates. Hopefully candidates don't outright lie during the primary and general election campaigns, but is it really news that they change emphasis and nuance as they must appeal, first to their own party's extremes, and then to the independents in the middle during the general election? Indeed, what they say and how they say it will vary from town to town and audience to audience.

What some others see as his shortcomings, I see as positives. I may well be wrong, but what others see as flip-flopping I see as managerial pragmatism. We've seen what ideological purity, and refusal to negotiate let alone compromise, has produced in Washington. President Obama is kind of a pragmatist, albeit one who gives in too much and too early (in my judgment). Romney's experience as Massachusetts' governor qualifies him to do as well, or better.

Some others are troubled by his Mormon religion. I see it as a positive. Santorum's vision of an American version of the Taliban, using government to impose one group's religious and social values on the rest of us, appeals to me not at all. As a fallen-away Unitarian, I have studied, and participated in, most of the world's most popular religions at one time or another (including the Mormon) as I've worked out my own. Whether you call it religion, ethics, or morality, I think it useful for individuals (and the communities in which they live) to carry a moral compass that they check for directions from time to time. Maybe it's no more than a hunch, but Romney seems to have that.

Nor do I find his seeming inability to speak the language of ordinary Americans disqualifying -- that his tie to NASCAR fans is that he knows a number of folks who own race teams, his appeal to UAW members is that his wife has two Cadillac cars, that his income from lecture fees is only a modest $300,000-plus. I find such unscripted comments almost charming in an odd sort of way. For more from this perspective, see Ashley Parker and Michael Barbaro, "The Retooled, Loose Romney, Guessing Voters’ Age and Ethnicity," New York Times, December 28, 2011, p. A1.

My wife sees in some politicians a quality she calls "Elvis." Bill Clinton had "Elvis." Romney clearly does not.

What I see in Romney is a bright, well informed, analytical, hard working, focused, pragmatic, problem-solving manager. A little touch of "Elvis" would be comforting, but it doesn't trump the other qualities. See Ashley Parker and Michael Barbaro, "Romney Takes Analytic Approach to Campaign Chaos," New York Times, February 28, 2012, p. A16 ("Mr. Romney’s once inevitable-seeming march toward the Republican nomination has endured an agonizing stretch of setbacks . . ., unexpected challenges . . . and verbal mishaps . . .. So the candidate is taking refuge in what he knows best: rigorous analysis of the problem and a calm determination to execute a long-term plan. 'He just sits down and is cold and clinical and analytical,' said John H. Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire and a Romney adviser who has spent hours with him on the campaign trail.")

Some reports of his relationships as governor with the Massachusetts legislators are a little troublesome. Michael Barbaro, "Legislators Recall Governor Who Didn't Mingle," New York Times, March 10, 2012, p. A1 ("For officials used to the glad-handing and alcohol-lubricated culture of local politics, Mr. Romney was an unfamiliar breed: a data-driven chief executive used to delivering unquestioned orders, a political newcomer who cast the legislature as a foe, a delegator who preferred working with just the leadership and an emotionally remote figure who tended not to socialize — and because of his Mormon religion did not drink. Even though he worked just a few hundred feet from them for four years, Mr. Romney displayed little interest in getting to know lawmakers and never developed real relationships . . ..") A president can probably get by with no "Elvis," but they all need a little "LBJ."

One of the most insightful columns about Romney (meaning the author shares my instincts about the man) is David Brooks, "The Wealth Issue," New York Times, January 20, 2012, p. A27 ("[I]s Mitt Romney’s character formed by his wealth . . . corrupted by ease and luxury? The notion is preposterous. All his life, Romney has been a worker and a grinder. He earned two degrees at Harvard simultaneously (in law and business). He built a business. He’s persevered year after year, amid defeat after defeat, to build a political career . . . the sort of relentlessness that we associate with striving immigrants, not rich scions. . . . George Romney, Mitt’s father, was born in Mexico. But when he was 5, in 1912, Mexican revolutionaries confiscated their property and threw them out. . . . Within days, they went from owning a large Mexican ranch to being penniless once again, drifting from California to Idaho to Utah, where again they built a fortune. . . . Romney . . . may have character flaws, but he does not have the character flaws normally associated with great wealth. His signature is focus and persistence. The wealth issue is a sideshow.")

We have been well served by some presidents, governors and senators of wealth; George H.W. Bush, Franklin Roosevelt, the three Kennedy brothers, and the Rockefellers come to mind. Wealth can carry with it a sense of oblesse oblige, a sense of independence from the baser political pressures. I don't know enough about Romney today, or his Massachusetts record, to have a sense of how he scores on this quality, or would as president. But while I don't think wealth "is a sideshow" in this context, neither should it be disqualifying.

And that's my response to the question: "Why Mitt Romney?"

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