Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Conservative Case for Mitt Romney

Many have raised various arguments for why Mitt Romney is the best candidate for Republicans. The conventional narrative goes something like this: Romney's electability outweighs his moderation, so conservatives would be better off with half a loaf with Romney than with no loaf with Obama. The claim of electability is no small advantage, but I'm interested in exploring things from a slightly different perspective: the case for Romney as the best candidate from a conservative perspective as a matter of principle and not mere electability. So here's a thought-experiment along those lines:
First of all, an identification of the problem: America has currently slipped into the Bermuda Triangle of big government, big declines for the middle class, and big deficits. As more economic power concentrates in the hands of an increasingly small minority, this minority is more able to wring benefits from a bigger centralized government. Meanwhile, the struggles of the middle and poor make a large number of voters susceptible to the claims of increasing government power (even if this power is increasingly used to benefit the few). The stagnating economy for most Americans drives down tax receipts and puts a further strain on social welfare programs, leading to deficits as far as the eye can see.

A market-based economic policy that ignites growth for most Americans could detonate this triangle. The past decade or so has witnessed the winnowing of the middle class, and a set of policies that empower the middle could pave the way for new wealth for both the top 1% and the bottom 99%. Among top-tier presidential contenders, Romney seems well-poised to promote such a set of policies. Conservatives who are serious about setting the nation's fiscal house in order must turn their attention to the economy. Economic revival will slash short-term deficits and give the nation breathing room to engage in longer-term reform as it is necessary. The defense of the middle class should be more than just a partisan talking point: it serves a key interest of principled conservatism.

One might suggest Dwight Eisenhower as Romney's closest recent Republican presidential nominee ancestor, though Romney lacks Eisenhower's impressive military record and Midwestern charm. However, like Eisenhower, Romney has been viewed with suspicion by the right wing of the Republican party. Eisenhower Republicanism has been treated with disdain by many "conservative" activists, but the nation---and conservatism---could do worse than a president in the spirit of Eisenhower. After all, look at some of the things Ike did: oversaw a period of great economic growth for all ranks of Americans, helped stabilize global affairs, invested in new technologies, vastly enriched the American infrastructure, balanced the federal budget (a feat basically unmatched by any of his Republican or "conservative" successors), cracked down on the employment of illegal immigrants, and reformed some of the excesses of the New Deal. As a lifelong soldier like Eisenhower might have best been able to warn against the dangers of a military-industrial complex, Romney, with his experience in the world of Wall Street, might best be able to divert a finance-governmental oligarchy.

As a point of practice, Eisenhower put forward policies that responded to the nation's concerns and achieved, on many points, more conservative results than can be boasted of by certain "conservative" icons. One might hope the same thing for Romney. There might be a whiff of the technocrat about Romney, but it should not be forgotten that a technocrat, in order to be successful, must bow before the reality principle.

Conservatism is not about the drum-circle therapy of glib policy axioms cited over and over again. It's about applying principles to real-world situations. Classical conservatism is an empirical enterprise. It's not enough to aver that government regulations are always the problem; particular regulations have to be examined and their implications (and the implications of their repeal) analyzed. For example, the regulatory revisions of the financial markets in the late 90s and early 2000s helped lead to the meltdown of 2008; disregulation intersected with existing government policies and entities to fuel a mortgage and financial bubble. Singing hymns to the badness of the federal government is no substitute for acknowledging that recklessly pulling blocks from the social-governmental Jenga tower can easily lead to collapse. If we are going to reform some fundamental economic institutions and practices, we would be wise to have reformers who are confident with policy arcana and show a skill in assimilating a broad range of viewpoints. Romney seems such a reformer.

Romney seems to understand that a strong middle class has been a key driver of American prosperity and republican liberty. The Union victory in the Civil War and the US triumphs in World War II and the Cold War relied upon an industrialized middle class. He also seems more aware than some of his fellow Republican candidates that production and skills provide a better foundation for long-term economic growth than does resource extraction. Economic opportunity is a complement and ally to political liberty. Economic opportunity does not always lead to political liberty, but radical economic stagnation usually places a liberal, democratic republic under great strain.

The technocrat in Romney can read the charts that amply demonstrate the weakening economic power of the vast majority of Americans. With his family heritage in car country, Romney probably remembers Henry Ford's principle that it is ultimately in the best interests of the owners of capital for labor to earn more money; further disposable income for the middle class provides the fuel for economic growth. Romney is doing more than pandering to economic anxiety when he says that he is "not worried about rich people": he is pointing to an acute and real economic problem. The fact that Romney has been attacked on the right for daring to focus on the middle class reveals how out of touch certain factions of rightist orthodoxy are at risk of becoming.

While some of his rivals are defending an endless flow of non-citizen labor and tax programs that would raise rates on the poor and middle while slashing them for the rich, Romney has been outlining policies that defend the middle class, the historical pillar of democratic republics. He has moved beyond the principle that tax cuts are the magic solution for economic growth. This fixation on tax cuts has been one of the biggest anchors around the neck of conservative renewal. On many issues, Romney challenges so-called "conservative" orthodoxy and reshapes it into something more vital and, frankly, more conservative. He supports turning off the magnet of labor for illegal immigrants by punishing employers who knowingly hire them. Rather than stuttering invocations about a digital (or electric) fence or boots on the ground at the border, he has turned his eye on the engine that drives the influx of illegal labor: jobs. More than any leading Republican presidential contender in decades, Romney is running against the United States's unilateral trade disarmament, attacking the People's Republic of China's "great wall of protectionism." Conservative thinking has increasingly come to realize over the past few years that the current trade regime is not exactly real "free trade," and Romney finds himself on the cutting edge of this trend. Romney as a 2012 GOP nominee would have a stronger stance on immigration enforcement than any GOP nominee in many an electoral cycle; many of his Republican rivals have a far weaker record on immigration enforcement.

Perhaps some of this concern for the economic interests of the middle class is just talk, but words in favor of needed reforms are probably better than blather against such reforms. There are many reasons why Barack Obama and his allies anticipate having an identity-driven attack on Romney (i.e., "He's a scary rich person!!!"): perhaps foremost among them is that the Obama White House represents in many ways a continuation of the economic policies that have perpetuated a decade of stagnation. From poor trade policies to big-business cronyism to little real reform of the financial system (we are not yet past the banking era of too-big-to-fail), Obama and his Democratic allies have left the economy just above neutral. Trillions of dollars in deficit spending have kept the nation barely treading water, while not enough has been done to offer the necessary structural change in the economy to guard against another collapse and offer the opportunity of sustainable economic growth. Based on his current economic blueprint, Romney would seem to offer an alternative to prevailing low-wage paradigm: a free-market policy emphasizing investment in human capital.

Of course, Romney, like any other candidate, is not without his flaws. But these flaws need not cripple a Romney candidacy.

In many respects, Romney's identity as a serial "flip-flopper" has about as much basis in the truth as Obama's identity as a super-genius political orator-philosopher: both are media narratives that may obscure more than they reveal. It's true that there have been some changes in Romney's public stances, but a number of his biggest "flip-flops" result from the contrast of his positions today with those of 1994, which was almost twenty years ago. Fewer than twenty years before he became the great conservative hope, Ronald Reagan was also a registered Democrat. Many of Romney's "flip-flops" are often exaggerated or distorted. The fact that a 2008 McCain campaign briefing book assails Romney's change of favorite movie from 2003 to 2007 as a "Top Romney Turnaround" demonstrates the utter triviality of some of these accusations. Some of his position changes (such as abortion) have occurred through the evolution of basic principles; others have come about as a result of changing circumstances (a tax policy recommendation in 2002 might not make as much sense as one in 2007, for example). It's often good for a politician's opinion on a policy option to adapt to new circumstances---that's called responsible government. Furthermore, I'm not quite sure how angry conservatives should be with an individual who comes to agree with them more.

And it seems as though many of Romney's "flip-flops" are no more extensive than those of many of his Republican rivals or many politicians, period. After all, Barack Obama campaigned against a health-insurance mandate, which is now central to Obamacare, and Reagan signed one of the nation's earliest laws liberalizing access to abortion. From a true conservative perspective, what ultimately matters is not whether a candidate is a member in good standing with the "movement" (a notoriously unconservative term), but whether this candidate shows some level of thoughtful integrity and can actually govern in a way that advances the principles of classical liberty. Whether Romney joined the "club" early enough or not should not captivate conservative thinking about him---this is politics after all, not the Seattle alternative music scene.

Romney's health-care reform in Massachusetts was less than perfect, to say the least. But this plan drew from mainstream, pre-Obamacare conservative thinking. It tried to cope with the fundamental problem of one of the greatest federal unfunded mandates (a Reaganite policy, by the way): the federal demand that hospitals treat patients regardless of their ability to pay or their insurance situation. The underlying assumption of Romneycare was that, since the state demands private entities (such as hospitals) provide health-care, the state will demand that consumers purchase health insurance if they can afford it; if they can't, the state will step in and provide subsidies to ensure that they can purchase this insurance. At its base, this idea has some (but only some) resemblance to Paul Ryan's Medicare reform proposal, which would give income-dependent vouchers for health insurance to the elderly. Another premise of Romneycare was that universal access would ensure a healthier population and slow the growth of health-care costs. All that Romney and his conservative allies had hoped for has not come true, and Romney's reform will itself need to be reformed. But he at least tried to solve a real issue. He took up the challenges of governing in a state dominated by Democrats, where his vetoes easily could be and were overridden. Rather than fruitlessly complaining, he tried to forge a workable compromise. Governors of many states have to compromise, and conservatives risk eliminating a big chunk of the political talent pool if they reject all governors who have have worked with Democrats (that is, governors who do not have big Republican majorities in their state legislatures).

Some on the left may find Romney more palatable because of his presumed "moderation." But conservatives should make no mistake: a Romney who lives up to his potential (a technically adept president with center-right instincts who renews the American economic architecture) could offer a national order significantly favorable to small-government classical conservatism. Technocratic skill could prove a real boon in unraveling bureaucratic dysfunction and in charting the course of reform conservatism. Reform of the financial world, medical sector, and manufacturing base could put America in the position to seize the opportunities of the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Immigration Fallout

Mickey Kaus deconstructs Gingrich's position on the mass legalization of illegal immigrants:

5) For recent and future illegal immigrants, the key apparent features of the Krieble Plan–the unlimited number of “red cards” and the ease of obtaining them**–effectively means something close to open borders. Millions of impoverished workers now living abroad could flood the U.S. labor market legally. Krieble’s plan is similar to the Papoon for President drug plan, which would “eliminate all illegal drugs” by simply making them all legal. Krieble similarly ends illegal immigration effectively legalizing it (“a country where there’s no more illegality,” as Gingrich put it).

And these unlimited legal “red card” workers would all return home, of course, right? And they’d be happy with second-class, non-citizenship status?

6) In embracing the Krieble plan, Gingrich fatally abandons the logic of “enforcement first,” which is that if you secure the border you can eventually have an amnesty–because the secure border will then be able to keep out future waves of wannabe illegals whom the amnesty will inevitably attract. If you really have a secure border, after all, you don’t need the unlimited Krieble red card plan, which would inevitably have a depressing effect on American wages (especially for the unskilled). Instead, the secure border would allow a numerically limited guestworker program, big enough to serve employers without having a major effect on wages, capable of being increased or decreased as market conditions changed.

Why would Gingrich want to control the border and then allow open borders–effectively unlimited unskilled future immigration–anyway? The main point of “controlling the border” is to prevent that.

Mark Krikorian piles on:

So the Gingrich Amnesty would cover illegal immigrants here when Congress passed IRCA. That is to say, it would pick up where the previous amnesty left off, legalizing precisely those people who didn’t qualify for IRCA. This just underlines what a chump you have to be to support any deal offered you by amnesty supporters.

Which is why “enforcement first” is the only way to go: consistent, unapologetic, across-the-board enforcement of the immigration law at our consulates overseas for visa applicants, at the borders, and inside the country, especially at the worksite — without preconditions or deals or grand bargains. Only after we’ve done that consistently — comprehensively! — for a sustained period of time and attrition has reduced the total illegal population by half or more is amnesty for some of those remaining even a legitimate topic for debate. For prudential reasons I might well be for amnesty under those conditions — I’m not an absolutist on the issue (though I don’t like second-class citizenship — if you’re going to amnesty someone, just do it and steer clear of Helen Krieble’s silly “red card” gimmick, which was the source of Mike Pence’s amnesty plan, too). But amnesty can only be the final chapter, not an opening gambit.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Accepting Reality

David Frum has an incisive (and controversial) essay up about his struggles with Tea Party-style Republican orthodoxies. There's much that's on target here, though some I disagree with. This paragraph has considerable merit:
Some call this the closing of the conservative mind. Alas, the conservative mind has proved itself only too open, these past years, to all manner of intellectual pollen. Call it instead the drying up of conservative creativity. It’s clearly true that the country faces daunting economic troubles. It’s also true that the wrong answers to those problems will push the United States toward a future of too much government, too many taxes, and too much regulation. It’s the job of conservatives in this crisis to show a better way. But it’s one thing to point out (accurately) that President Obama’s stimulus plan was mostly a compilation of antique Democratic wish lists, and quite another to argue that the correct response to the worst collapse since the thirties is to wait for the economy to get better on its own. It’s one thing to worry (wisely) about the long-term trend in government spending, and another to demand big, immediate cuts when 25 million are out of full-time work and the government can borrow for ten years at 2 percent. It’s a duty to scrutinize the actions and decisions of the incumbent administration, but an abuse to use the filibuster as a routine tool of legislation or to prevent dozens of presidential appointments from even coming to a vote. It’s fine to be unconcerned that the rich are getting richer, but blind to deny that ­middle-class wages have stagnated or worse over the past dozen years. In the aftershock of 2008, large numbers of Americans feel exploited and abused. Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old, to be followed by who-knows-what and who-the-hell-cares. This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.
Robert Stacy McCain thinks that some of the problems Republicans have run into have resulted from a conflation of Republican politics and conservative principles, so that many non-conservative Bush-era policies were identified with conservatism. I think one thing Frum is trying to get at is that many so-called "conservative" policies function in highly non-conservative ways.

I think there's a tension to this part of McCain's response, though:
Frum is a wonk very much concerned with the question of what legislative and policy initiatives can be feasibly enacted (and politically defended) by Republican elected officials. That’s a very different thing than declaring, broadly, what the ultimate objectives of the conservative movement should be.

For example, were it in my power to accomplish one thing in Washington, D.C., the federal Department of Education would be abolished and its employees summarily dismissed from public service. Except for funding necessary research and providing educational benefits for military veterans, we would get the federal government entirely out of the education business.

This is not how wonks talk or think, however, because nobody in Wonk World has that kind of profound loathing for federal bureaucracy. When you suggest a genuinely bold proposal like zeroing out the Department of Education, a Republican wonk immediately imagines the hue and outcry from the Democrats, the teachers unions, and the New York Times. They can’t imagine Republicans withstanding such angry criticism and, they’ll point out, Reagan never followed through on his promise to abolish the Department of Education.

But, OK, say you want to get rid of the Department of Education, and say you that desire doesn't change the fact that it very likely will not be abolished? If it is going to exist, how can you make it run in the most effective and conservative way possible? That's not an incidental question (nor do I mean to suggest that McCain thinks it is). And it is precisely that kind of question that Republicans and conservatives need to think the hardest about.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Path to Reform

Rod Dreher has some interesting reflections here on the need for reform within conservatism:
The complaint I’m making here is not that any of these views are wrong (that’s another argument), but rather that the conservative movement and the Republican Party is so driven now by hidebound orthodoxies that it’s by and large unwelcoming to innovative thinking and creative challenge. This is unconservative, if conservatism is understood as the opposite of ideology, as Kirk had it. The whole idea of the RINO is what political correctness looks like when it manifests on the Right.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Executive Supremacy

Though Rick Perry's plan to "reform" Washington has been getting a lot of press, I think there is something that should especially be emphasized about it, one that does not bode well for classical conservatism: Perry's plan seems a recipe for radically increasing the power of the executive branch. Here are some of the principles:
  • Ending the practice of giving lifetime appointments to federal judges (current judges would not be affected);
  • Cutting Congressional pay in half;
  • Cutting Congressional pay in half again if they don’t balance the budget by 2020;
  • Cutting Congressional office budgets in half;
  • Cutting the Congressional calendar by half;
  • Criminalizing insider trading by Congressmen;
  • Reducing spending to 18% of GDP;
  • Privatizing Fannie & Freddie;
  • Ending the funding of Planned Parenthood;
  • Eliminating the Commerce, Education, and Energy Departments;
  • Getting the EPA under control;
  • Getting the TSA under control;
  • Audit the government, including the Department of Defense;
  • Freeze incoming federal regulations, and audit all of them for the last five years;
  • Federal salary freeze for all non-military and non-law enforcement officials until the budget is balanced;
  • And cutting the Presidential salary in half until the budget is balanced
There's a lot here---some of it good, some of it not so good. Let's focus on Congress for the moment. One of the key levers of power for Roosevelt's New Deal and, more broadly, the modern presidency is its corps of bureaucrats and analysts; the Executive Office alone has at least 2000 or so staffers. The president has access to layers and layers of information. This access gives the president great influence in shaping the annual budget and the details of policy. Members of Congress may propose laws, but the substance of these laws often has considerable White House backing.

Congressional staff provide at least a partial check on the data power of the executive branch. By undermining Congressional staffs through salary cuts, one also undermines the ability of Congress to shape the information narrative and write legislation. Meanwhile, cutting Congressional pay might seem an invitation to more petty corruption.

One can say this about Rick Perry with some confidence: he knows how power works. As Governor of Texas, he has shown considerable skill in centralizing power through a cunning use of the appointment powers of the governor and through legislative maneuvering. He knows that power abhors a vacuum and that a diminution of Congress's power will give the president a further opportunity to exercise power. A few Cabinet departments may be eliminated under Perry's plan, but those agencies under the president's direct control will have plenty of room to grow.

Any talk of cutting government employment may elicit shouts of glee from many on the right. But conservatives need to ask themselves whether it advances the cause of smaller government to reform the federal government so that the centralized executive branch has even more power.

(Crossposted at FrumForum)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Unity over Division

The defeat of Ohio's anti-union Senate Bill 5 will be hailed by both righties and leftists as a defeat for conservatism. Perhaps due to my skepticism about how authentically conservative that measure actually was (here I might differ a bit with Mytheos Holt), I'm not so sure about that. But it is a defeat for a certain set of political tactics and suggests that a route Republicans recently have surged down may be a bit of a dead end.

John Kasich has no small potential as a governor. However, he has fallen into an unfortunate trap: rather than focusing on selling an economic plan that brings opportunity to all, he instead chose to back a series of reforms that had the appearance of pitting Ohioan against Ohioan. In a way reminiscent of Scott Walker's policies in Wisconsin, Kasich offered a combination of tax cuts and spending cuts and then added a capacious anti-union measure on top of that.

Unlike Walker, Kasich chose not to buy off interest groups by making his anti-collective bargaining apply to all public workers---not just clerks and teachers but also firefighters and police officers (Walker exempted the last two groups). This act of principle only made the issue seem even starker and helped unite a union coalition against this measure. Moreover, certain parts of SB5 reach far beyond cost-saving measures and offer a fundamental restructuring of key parts of Ohio's public service infrastructure. For example, banning tenure for future teachers and tying teacher pay to student performance on standardized exams would have consequences that reach far beyond the government coffers.

Though hating unions has become an increasingly "in" thing for many in the conservative base, many Americans view unions, private and public, as a bulwark of the middle class, which has been subjected to such stinging attacks over the past decade. Economic anxiety about the decline of the middle has, in Ohio and other places, been translated into a defense of unions.

Analysts left and right are speculating about the importance of union spending in tipping the balance, but we should not overestimate the effects of this political spending: a majority seems to have always supported repeal. When Quinnipiac first started polling the repeal of SB5 in May 2011, 54% of respondents backed a repeal. By late October 2011, support for repeal had climbed up to 57%, a definite increase but not a game-changing one. 61% of voters eventually came out in favor of repeal. SB5 was never a popular piece of legislation. Union spending might have increased the margin of victory, but I think Republicans needed more than slick ads if they wanted to win on this issue in Ohio.

The overwhelming victory for Issue 3 (which would ban the enforcement of a federal health-care mandate) shows that conservatives can still get commanding majorities on the question of federal overreach. The defeat of SB5 shows that union-bashing may make for viscerally enjoyable talk-radio, but it may not be the best electoral tactic. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the United States can afford a vigorous public-sector employment field and can even afford public-sector unions. (There is a case to be made against public-sector unions, but fiscal sustainability may not be the strongest grounds for it.) But such expenses can best be afforded under conditions of economic health. Republicans would be far better off working toward an optimistic vision of economic opportunity for all than trying to castigate certain portions of the American public as parasites, vermin, and thugs. Faith in the American people is an ally of small-government thinking. Ronald Reagan understood this alliance and was able to forge an electoral message that combined economic growth with a sense of national fellowship. The defeat of SB5 may yet bring conservatives and Republicans to appreciate the wisdom of this Reaganite principle.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Kristol: 1980 Is Long Gone

Bill Kristol suggests that conservatives should not be held hostage by the nostalgia for 1980:

For every American conservative, not once but whenever he wants it, it’s always the evening of November 4, 1980, the instant when we knew Ronald Reagan, the man who gave the speech in the lost cause of 1964, leader of the movement since 1966, derided by liberal elites and despised by the Republican establishment, the moment when we knew—he’d won, we’d won, the impossible dream was possible, the desperate gamble of modern conservatism might pay off, conservatism had a chance, America had a chance. And then, a decade later—the Cold War won, the economy revived, America led out of the abyss, we’d come so far with so much at stake—conservatism vindicated, America restored, a desperate and unbelievable victory for the cast made so many years ago against such odds.

But that was then, and this is now. Now is 2012, and it seems clear that 2012 isn’t going to be another 1980. The reality seems to be that we’re not going to have a chance to replay that election, with (at least in the hazy glow of retrospect) a compelling conservative leader of long standing but ever youthful, a man who stood tall and spoke for us and for America, riding gracefully to victory over the GOP establishment in the primaries and over decadent liberalism in the general election. Assuming the presidential field stays as it is, 2012 won’t be a repeat of 1980.

As Kristol goes on to note, the fact that the 2012 dynamic seems like it will be different from that of 1980 might not be the worst thing in the world: there are other models for successful presidential campaigns than Reagan's.

Bill Jacobson thinks that we should blame conservative "technocrats" for this difference. Instead, I tend to think that, in order for conservatism and Republicanism to grow, it cannot be held hostage to a single electoral model. Yes, Reagan did a lot of good things as president. But some of what Reagan ran on in 1980 is no longer applicable (I don't think diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union are exactly a pressing issue anymore). And there are plenty of issues where Reagan's talk didn't exactly align with his actions; the Department of Education, which he ran on abolishing, only grew during his tenure. Furthermore, there are other points where self-styled "conservative" purists would excoriate Reagan for his governance. Of the current top-tier presidential candidates, the one whose stance on Social Security is closest to Reagan's is probably Mitt Romney, a man derided by many purists as a technocrat.

History changes, leading to new issues and new policy alignments. A political coalition unable to create narratives to cope with these changes is one that is fated to wither. In an interesting post earlier this week, Ace at Ace of Spades HQ argued that the hunt for the "Great Conservative Candidate" can sometimes substitute wishful thinking for realistic reflection. Conservatives cannot afford to let nostalgia displace critical thinking. As much as he admired Calvin Coolidge, Reagan did not try to put in place a Coolidge economic program. He adapted certain small-government principles into new policies. Conservatives would be wise to follow in the spirit of this example.