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.

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