The Problem is Less Romney and More GOP
Don't hate the player, hate the game (more or less, anyway).
Fareed Zakaria hits the nail on the head:
the problem is not Romney but the new Republican Party. Given the direction in which it has moved and the pressures from its most extreme — yet most powerful — elements, any nominee would face the same challenge: Can you be a serious candidate for the general election while not outraging the Republican base?
This is the bottom line. Any serious attempt at the presentation of real set of policy priorities is impossible in the current context of the contemporary Republican Party. Zakaria correctly notes:
It is obvious that, with a deficit at 8 percent of gross domestic product, any solution to our budgetary problems has to involve both spending cuts and tax increases. Ronald Reagan agreed to tax increases when the deficit hit 4 percent of GDP; George H.W. Bush did so when the deficit was 3 percent of GDP. But today’s Republican Party is organized around the proposition that, no matter the circumstances, there must never be a tax increase of any kind. The Simpson-Bowles proposal calls for $1 of tax increases for every $3 of spending cuts. But every Republican presidential candidate — including Romney — pledged during the primaries that he or she would not accept $10 of spending cuts if that meant a dollar of tax increases.
I was thinking about this the other day in comparing the Romney campaign to that of John McCain in 2008. On the one hand, 2008 was a very bad year for Republicans and therefore McCain could have run an excellent campaign and still lost badly. However, instead of being serious his campaign was molded by the state of the GOP. For example, the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate was the epitome of base-pleasing rather than a serious attempt at making a case for governing. The ridiculous embrace of Joe the Plumber and his tax populism was another such example.
At the end of the day, the situation for GOP candidates given the current state of the party, are as follows:
Romney could present a serious economic plan with numbers that make sense — and then face a revolt within his own party. His solution: to be utterly vague about how he would deal with the deficit. When pressed for details recently, he explained that “the devil’s in the details. The angel is in the vision.” He’s right. Were he to get specific, he would be committing ideological blasphemy. So instead he talks about freedom and capitalism.
Look: I like freedom and capitalism, but slogans aren’t policy and appealing to vague values is not a recipe for governing.
Indeed, all of this gets to my fundamental problem with the Republican Party of late: it is not serous about the real challenges of governing. Governing requires facing stark realities which, in turn, means making difficult choices. Governing also requires negotiation and compromise. Adherence to idealistic/ideological position based in fantasies is not governing. Put another way: things that get the audience at CPAC excited, or that form the basis of a Limbaugh monologue are not the stuff governance. However, it seems that the contemporary GOP has confused rhetoric that partisans like with things serious discussions of governing.
As Zakaria concludes:
The Republican Party has imposed a new kind of political correctness on its leaders. They cannot speak certain words (taxes) or speculate about certain ideas (immigration amnesty) because these are forbidden. Romney has tried to run a campaign while not running afoul of his party’s strictures. As a result, he has twisted himself into a pretzel, speaking vacuously, avoiding specifics and refusing to provide any serious plans for the most important issues of the day. That’s a straitjacket that even Peggy Noonan’s eloquence cannot get him out of.
Indeed it is even worse than that: not only are some policy areas impossible to discuss intelligently (such as taxes and immigration) there is an unreality associated with other policy areas such as defense (e.g., the notion that cuts to the defense budget will make America weak and unsafe is ludicrous).
There was a point in time that I thought, maybe, Romney could take his experience in business, with the Olympics, and as a governor to produce an actual vision for governing that could seriously compete for the presidency. Instead he has been utterly hamstrung by the straight-jacket that all GOP candidates must wear. And yes, he has been his own worse enemy as times, although I think a lot of his errors are rooted in (or, at least, compounded by) the need to feed the base what it wants to feast upon.
Consider the list I just gave above and note the near-absence of discussion of his work with the Olympics and especially of his time as governor. The parts of his resume that most links to the presidency, being a governor, is the part most ignored by the campaign and I think that this is because too much attention to actual governance is a detriment in the contemporary Republican Party.
I am not saying, by the way, that Romney is an excellent candidate (I think, in fact, that he is not), but I also think that the GOP makes a mistake if it diagnoses the problem as solely a Romney problem. The underlying problem at the moment is the party itself and the contortions that its candidates must attempt when they run for office, especially the presidency. Denying reality is not a good long term strategy. And reducing conservatism as a political philosophy to one single note (tax cuts always and forevermore!) is unhelpful (and yes, that is an understatement).
None of this is to say that the Democrats have offered perfect solutions or that there are no conservative ideas worth considering. However, at the moment the problem for the Republicans is twofold: 1) most recent Democratic ideas are either centrist or center-right* (which constricts the philosophical space wherein debate can be held), and 2) the Republican Party limits its candidates to an incredibly limited slice of acceptable ideas.
As such, the problem is less Romney (although he hasn’t helped), but is rather the party itself, and I do not see this changing any time soon.
*I know that many on the right will dispute this assessment, but the fact that they cannot see the truth of the statement underscores the party’s self-made predicament.