You have to hand it to Mitt Romney and his team. Starting in the first debate, he pivoted almost effortlessly to the center, which is where elections are won. If he beats President Barack Obama, it will be because he Etch-A- Sketched his earlier positions and convinced enough people that he would be a moderate president.
Unfortunately, he has little chance of governing that way. We don’t know which Romney will show up on a given day, but we sure know which Republican Party would be in charge in Washington every minute. The Republicans have become the most extreme major political party in generations. They are tolerating Romney’s heresies this month only to gain power.
If a President Romney tried to govern in a moderate fashion by, say, allowing for some revenue increases to reduce the deficit, his base wouldn’t hesitate to savage him. Then he would be a man without a party, unless you include Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Were Senator Scott Brown to survive his challenge in Massachusetts (and Elizabeth Warren currently leads in the polls), the moderate Republican caucus in Congress might include just two senators, plus three or four House members. That’s it.
More likely, Romney as president would be a man with a strange crick in the neck, constantly looking over his right shoulder to see which pickup truck full of movement conservatives was about to run him over.
If you think he has the fortitude to stand up to people such as the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist and Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who never hesitate to knife fellow Republicans for deviations, you haven’t been paying attention. Fortitude, constancy, commitment to a set of ideas — these aren’t likely to be the hallmarks of a Romney administration.
So we would have a president constantly buffeted by his base, which is far out of the mainstream. The events of this fall offer proof that Republicans hold extreme views that aren’t shared by most Americans. Otherwise, Romney would have been honest about his program and championed conservative issues instead of executing all those U-turns in the debates.
His real blueprint for governing, readily available from his public statements throughout the campaign, is almost completely at odds with the image he has sought to project before the huge audience of centrist voters who pay little attention to politics.
Instead of “loving regulation,” as he said in the first debate, a President Romney would gut what he called the “extreme” fuel-economy standards that are helping America move toward energy independence; repeal the Volcker rule and other sensible efforts to prevent another financial crisis; and relax emission rules for coal-fired plants, among hundreds of other favors for wealthy interests. Carte blanche for business is the soul of his otherwise soulless campaign.
In all three debates, Romney also claimed to “love” teachers and education. But as governor of Massachusetts, he slashed funding for the community colleges that train the middle-class workforce of the future. His election would end Obama’s only-Nixon-could-go-to-China progress on getting Democrats to sign on to his Race to the Top accountability standards for schools. Divided Democrats would unite to oppose Romney, dealing a severe setback to education reform. That’s why reformers such as Michelle Rhee and many of the hedge-fund managers bankrolling charter schools are strongly pro-Obama.
While Romney claimed in Denver to oppose cuts in Pell grants, the budget proposed by his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, plans 33 percent less for “education, training, employment and social services.” An additional 6 percent would be cut from “general science, space and basic technology” — a gut punch to the research institutions that are critical for a 21st-century economy.
Repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act would mean people like my 18-year-old daughter, who has a serious pre-existing condition, will have trouble getting insured. Cutting $750 billion from Medicaid and block-granting it would lead to more sick, uninsured Americans going to the doctor later than they should, and to the closure of many inner-city hospitals and clinics. And that’s just part of more than $1 trillion in cuts to spending for the needy. There’s nothing moderate about Ryan’s plan to shred the social safety net.
Might President Romney tell Vice President Ryan he’s all wet? Don’t bet on it. No one in Washington thinks Romney would shelve the very document that helped convince him to put Ryan on the ticket in the first place. More likely, he would assign Ryan responsibility for supervising his budget.
Let’s say Romney and the Democrats split the difference and cut only 16 percent from education instead of 33 percent, or increase defense spending by only $1 trillion instead of $2 trillion. In what way is that moderate?
In the negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff, President Romney would be trapped between anti-tax zealots who think they won the election, and deficit hawks willing to raise revenue to close the deficit. The whip hand that Obama has with the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts is much more likely to yield a workable compromise.
Then there’s the Supreme Court. Should a vacancy occur (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a survivor of pancreatic cancer, is 79), Romney would be compelled to nominate an abortion foe or suffer the wrath that conservatives inflicted on President George W. Bush when he tried to name Harriet Miers to the court.
That would mean a reversal of Roe v. Wade and a return of abortion policy to the states, many of which would ban terminating pregnancies.
To judge by the Boca Raton, Florida, debate this week, Romney’s foreign policy would resemble Obama’s. He claimed repeatedly to agree with the president, even arguing that he would tap global bodies such as the United Nations. So why is Romney surrounded by neoconservatives from the Bush administration who despise the UN and still believe the Iraq War was a good idea?
Obama won the second and third debates by calling Romney out on his Extreme Makeover. His best line was when he charged that Romney wanted to return to the foreign policies of the 1980s, the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.
Secret wars, back-alley abortions, cowboy capitalism. How moderate.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak