One of the nation's most prominent columnists told me in the past few days that he had almost written that Mitt Romney was the inevitable Republican nominee, but at the last minute, pulled back and hedged his prediction with a formulaic qualifier. Not me. For months, I've been boldly stating that it's Romney. After all, I asked, who the hell else have they got?
Well, right now, Newt Gingrich — ahead in Iowa, closing in New Hampshire, pulling away in South Carolina, beating Romney by the astounding margin of 47 percent to 17 percent in the probable rubber-match state of Florida. Can it last? Is the year so weird that the traditional metrics — money, organization, a long-term strategic plan — don't matter, or won't make enough of a difference? I still believe, logically, perhaps stubbornly, that in the end, the unpalatable Romney is likely to prevail over the improbable Gingrich or some last hour, unthinkable incarnation of yet another non-Mitt.
The resistance to the obvious nominee reflects the nagging instinct of the GOP's dominant right wing that, whatever his peccadilloes and his pyrotechnic deviations from orthodoxy, Newt is at heart a conservative, and that Mitt is at heart a con man.
Both propositions are amply justified on the public record, but for conservatives, the judgment about Romney should be irrelevant. The Right shouldn't be afraid of him; it's the rest of us who should. If elected, Romney would be imprisoned in his presidency by wary Republicans who would watch his every move and threaten his renomination if he ever dared to be pragmatic. Whether he means what he says, doing it would be his only politically viable choice in the White House.
Mitt Romney's America would be a narrow and bigoted place.
Romney often invokes Ronald Reagan, the man he blithely disclaimed during his 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts. But Romney is no Reagan, who so embodied the conservative principles to which he did genuinely subscribe that he was free to transcend them — to compromise and event to commit moderation — when he decided that was the sensible course, or even essential to the national interest.
Thus, Reagan raised taxes after cutting them. He worked with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill to save Social Security despite his earlier view that it "should be made voluntary." Then he worked with Ted Kennedy to pass sweeping immigration reform that provided for amnesty. He denounced "the evil empire" and then made peace with Mikhail Gorbachev. This was, to certain conservative elites, the most unthinkable transgression of all. William F. Buckley Jr. called Reagan's nuclear arms control treaty a "suicide pact." Rep. Dick Cheney rebuked the president, who in turn said of his critics: They "have accepted that war is inevitable."
And long before his second-term treaty-making with the Soviets, Reagan's pragmatism had riled the self-appointed keepers of the right-wing flame. For permitting grain sales to the Soviet Union, columnist George Will attacked the administration "for lov[ing] commerce more than it loathes communism." William Safire delivered his harsh verdict on the president's move toward the middle on Social Security and taxes, including his move away from the flat tax. All this, he wrote, was "Reagan's white flag" — which "invited... grinning contempt."
Yet none of this noise mattered, and no one inside his own party seriously thought to challenge the president in 1984. He was simply, unassailably "Mr. Conservative" — and he could bend or change the rules, holding his base in the country while inside-the-Beltway critics spoke mostly to themselves. As the Moral Majority's Ron Godwin conceded in a 1982 Washington Post piece (subscription required) reporting on complaints about Reagan's "liberal" and "moderate" advisers, the president had a bond of trust with GOP voters: "They like him and are pleased with them."
In contrast, Romney is seeking — and at best, will have to settle for — grudging acceptance from skeptical Republicans. As president, he would be on permanent probation because he lacks fundamental strength with a GOP base that is decidedly more hard-line than it was during the Reagan era. Romney more closely resembles the first George Bush, who, after courageously recognizing the fiscal folly of his famous pledge of "no new taxes," was harried and wounded by Pat Buchanan in the 1992 Republican primaries. Bush had been Reagan's vice president, his natural successor, but like Romney now, Bush senior faced a wall of conservative skepticism, both when he lost the nomination in 1980 and when he finally won it in 1988. Then he violated his parole by agreeing to a tax increase. Romney knows this history, and would not choose to repeat it. As president, he would not be that Bush. He would have to be the anti-Reagan — because he would not be less right wing, but more reliably and inflexibly just that, incapable of dispensing with his party's dogma where and when it was wrong.
So it's time to rethink the comforting, conventional wisdom that Romney doesn't mean all the stuff he says, that underneath it there's a streak of moderation which he would bring to the presidency. It's a backhanded compliment which treats the candidate's insincerity as a kind of insurance policy against his own professed convictions. In fact, and almost certainly, Romney would govern as he campaigns, no matter what he actually believes. That's why the rest of us should be afraid of what Mitt Romney's America would look like.
In Mitt Romney's America, unemployment could escalate — or soar — as he prematurely slashed the budget and drained demand from a fragile economy. His long-term fiscal policy — which tracks Rep. Paul Ryan's draconian model — could turn the next recession into a depression; it would shred the social safety net and devastate programs ranging from college loans to research and development and environmental protections. (Listen to the cheers from the science-denying fringe.) The wealthy would never be asked to pay their fair share by a president who would never risk alienating Grover Norquist. And Romney's enmity toward regulation would invite a repetition of the 2008 financial crash.
Thus the "jobs" candidate could become the jobs destroyer as president — which, of course, was what he was when he dismembered companies and fired workers during his years in the private sector. He is not just the tribune of the 1 percent; he is the 1/10th of 1 percent. (In Iowa, his son Josh just talked about the Romneys' "pretty small" $12 million beachfront house in La Jolla, Calif.)
In Mitt Romney's America, Medicare would be voucherized and Social Security would be privatized. Insurance companies would be free again to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and to cancel policies as the costs of life-saving treatment mounted. Tens of millions more would be left without health insurance.
And Mitt Romney's America would be a narrow and bigoted place, too. He opposed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He's proposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. His Supreme Court nominees would tip the balance and overturn Roe v. Wade. And what about civil rights? Romney has become an immigrant-baiter who now wants to build that "danged fence" along the border. The co-chair of his Justice Advisory Committee is Robert Bork, who called the 1964 Civil Rights Act "unsurpassed ugliness". On issues of equality, Mitt Romney's America would look a lot like Ted Kennedy's famous description of Robert Bork's America, where "rigid ideology will tip the scales of justice against the kind of country [this] is and ought to be."
Congress could stop some of Romney's initiatives, and slow or modify others. But if Republicans control both houses, the only breakwater would be Democratic filibusters in the Senate. They wouldn't always be there, and couldn't always work. For example, Romney could reinstate the ban on stem cell research by executive order. He would.
The ascendant right wing in the Republican Party worries about what's in Romney's soul. But if he wins, they will have him in thrall — and get what they want from his presidency. Captive to his own opportunism, Romney would have no opportunity to slip the surly bonds of his newly proclaimed ideology. Republican primary voters may fall for Gingrich as they recoil from Romney, but they don't have to. They may not like the flip-flopper, but they would like the firm stands he would take in the White House.
And that's why I hope we never have to live in Mitt Romney's America.