George W Bush practically built his re-election effort against John Kerry on the idea that even if you disagreed with him, you consistently knew where he stood on stuff. That commercial above is famous. And the US right in general loves that sort of macho grandstanding on behalf of American will in the face of wimpy, carping detractors – usually Europeans, academics, and liberals, ideally combined. Remember ‘freedom fries’?
Palin and McCain struck the same pose in 2008 (‘I would much rather lose a campaign than a war’), and so did lots of Tea Party candidates in 2010 and in the 2012 GOP primary. Remember when Perry even said, “I’ll be for water-boarding until the day I die”? And Fox talks like this all the time, as if Hannity were the last bastion of American bootstrap ideals against a rising tide of liberals, illegal immigrants, and Muslims. So if the Tea Party right loves this ‘let’s-go-down-with-the-ship-on-behalf-of-principle’ posture, how can one possibly support Romney after he flip-flopped all over the place in the first debate last week?
Romney more or less disavowed almost everything average Joe, median voter came to think about him over the last year. You thought he was a “severe conservative.” Now he sympathizes with struggling families looking for a job. What happened to the ‘I built it myself’ Randism of the GOP convention just one month ago? I thought Dodd-Frank was a bad idea and that the financial services industry, like Bain Capital, was a ‘job creator.’ Now parts of Dodd-Frank are good, and Obama “blew a kiss” to too-big-to-fail-banks. I thought regulation created ‘uncertainty’ for ‘job creators’ and was the cause of high unemployment. Now it’s not so bad after all. I thought the huge tax cut was supposed to re-start the economy. Now I don’t really know if there will be a tax cut, because Romney “underlined” that he won’t increase the deficit, and he still seems (who knows now?) committed to that huge defense expansion which would eat up any tax cut. He talked up RomneyCare for the first time that I can remember, ever. Now RomneyCare was not a bad thing, but ObamaCare still is. And nothing I heard helped me understand the difference between the two, even though everything I’ve read to date said the former was a model for the latter and that’s why Romney never brought it up. He lied, again, that his replacement for ObamaCare will cover pre-existing conditions. And he repeated the (bogus) criticism, from the left, that Obama will strip $716B from Medicare, even though Ryan is on the ticket, the foremost spokesman in the country for the notion that that welfare state is bankrupting the US.
I am less interested in fact-checking all these positions (try here), than what all this tells me about the candidate himself. Because honestly, I no longer have a meaningful idea what Romney thinks about almost any campaign issue. As I see it, he either, A) dissembled and BS’d to such an extent that it’s now time to call Romney a liar, or B) he really will say almost anything to anyone in order to win.
To my mind, both of these are effectively disqualifying, and barring some race-altering moment, my shock at the unabashed inconsistencies of Romney’s performance sealed my vote for Obama the other day. My remaining sympathy of Romney evaporated with that first debate. I don’t think Obama is a particularly good prez; I’ve always voted in the GOP primary; and I think the Democrats routinely misgovern my state (Ohio). But at this point, after 18 months of ‘Etch-a-Sketch,’ culminating in this debate run to the middle, Romney is either openly lying, or a flip-flopper worse than John Kerry ever was – i.e., astonishingly unhinged from the reality of actual discourse among people who pay attention to him for more than a few days.
I’m not sure which is worse. Lying seems worse at first, but a thirst for political power unchecked by a basic integrity – in which statement A from yesterday connects to statement B from today – sounds like megalomania, the kind of reason why Plato and Thucydides were so famously contemptuous of democratic leadership. I don’t mean to exaggerate, but power-for-power’s-sake is a fairly disturbing vibe I increasingly get from Romney, as if this is some ‘master of the universe’ vanity project for him, rather than a national election over policy choices which ought to be meaningful and not vary audience-by-audience. As Nexon put it:
Romney’s muse is unfettered by the shackles of truth and consistency. Perhaps Romney himself views these restrictions as little more than the hobgoblins of smaller minds. This state of affairs renders his presentation extremely effective. This is a lesson that Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum learned during the interminable GOP nomination debates: Romney will, without hesitation, deny his own positions, policy proposals, past statements, and writings.
This is very well put and captures my own confusion and growing unease over Romney.
Beyond suggesting his run is a vanity project, Romney’s extreme plasticity is also worrisome, because 1) it suggests significant unpredictability once in office, and 2) it seems likely that he’ll be easily captured or bullied by dedicated extremists in his own camp.
1. By unpredictability, I mean simply that after so much flip-flopping, I have no idea what he’ll do on big issues, so why should I feel comfortable giving him the powers of POTUS? At this point, he’s basically a shot in the dark, a ‘not-Obama’ with little profile beyond being vaguely ‘conservative’ because he’s a Republican. His commentary on Afghanistan and Syria has been a mess, obviously driven by partisan point-scoring rather than any belief. (At least with McCain, you knew he believe that neocon stuff even if it was wrong.) His sudden, totally unexpected rejuvenation of RomneyCare and persistent opacity on ‘pre-existing conditions’ tells me that ObamaCare might not be gutted after all. And the tax cut? Romney said in the debate: “I want to underline that – no tax cut that adds to the deficit.” Well given that the deficit is $1.3T and Romney wants a defense build-up, how can you possibly have a non-deficit-worsening tax cut? In fact, it sounds like you need a tax hike. If that’s true, then what was the convention all about and why is Ryan on the ticket? In short, he’s become so unpredictable, that I would find it unnerving to give him the powers of high office.
2. With few core beliefs, yet facing highly ideological partisans in the Congress (the tea partiers in the House particularly), it seems likely that President Romney would blow in the wind to keep them happy. It’s worth recalling that Romney won the GOP primary by running to the right, by pandering to the Tea Party, not by confronting it and carving out a moderate GOP coalition of his own. Such a coalition might have given him political cover as prez to resist the hard right, but without it, he be under constant pressure, and his debate centrism is sure to waken old right-wing doubts that Romney’s not one of them.
Certainly, the right’s media network will keep up a drumbeat to relentlessly push the wishy-washy Romney toward stuff he might not like. Old promises from primaries that Romney threw out just for votes (Israel, Iran, China trade, tax cuts, social issues, intelligent design) will be dug up to box him in, and he get dragged along because he lacks the interest to fight them and the base to do so. The GOP energy today is with the Tea Party and the House leadership. Romney will never connect with them as W did, and consequently, they’ll bully him relentlessly.
Finally, none of this should be taken to suggest my own agreement with the idea that consistency precedes all other political values. I don’t actually agree with the GOP that political consistency to the point of ideological absurdity like creationism or last year’s debt ceiling crisis is good. Democratic politics obviously requires compromise. My question instead is how the US right can support this unabashed, serial flip-flopper when it has raised flip-flopping and pragmatism to the point of metaphysical betrayal in the last decade? The GOP base really believes in take-no-prisoners ideology right now (the 2011 summer debt debacle, and the 2012 primaries and convention make that obvious), and Romney doesn’t (as the debate made obvious and we all kinda suspected). So how can Tea-Partiers especially vote for this guy? It seems impossible.
NB: Nor I’m not arguing that politicians should never change their mind. Bush’s ‘consistency’ was more like ‘cognitive rigidity’ by his second term. Of course, we all grow and learn over time; real epiphanies do happen. My concern is that Romney’s changes of mind so obviously track the political benefits of those changes that they are clearly not epiphanies, or the result of deep reading, experiences or reflection. It’s all just poll-driven positioning in order to get elected. This is so transparently obvious at this point, that I understand why so many people think he’s lying. (For the idea lied, try this and this; for the idea that his inner moderate finally came out, go here.) How the GOP, which loved to crucify Clinton for precisely such ‘triangulation,’ can now support it is beyond me.
Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.