FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Can Republicans Win In 2012 Without Leadership?
Leading From Behind
Fred Barnes, who is nothing if not plugged in to the thinking of leading Beltway Republicans, looks at how the Congressional GOP plans to work with the presidential nominee:
Republicans would like to revive party unity and repeat the Reagan-Kemp success story. House speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell are planning to confer with the Republican nominee, once one emerges. Their aim: agreement on a joint agenda.
McConnell has specific ideas about what the presidential candidate and Republicans in both houses of Congress should promote. “Obamacare should be the number one issue in the campaign,” he says. “I think it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Next are the deficit and national debt. These, in turn, would make entitlement and tax reform important issues against Obama. “We’re not interested in small ball,” McConnell says.
And there’s another Republican initiative on Capitol Hill aimed at thwarting President Obama and Democrats. Republicans plan to keep up a steady stream of bills and proposals, mostly coming from the House, to foil the charge that Obama’s policies have been undercut by a “do-nothing Congress” – that is, a Republican Congress.
Even considering the fact that McConnell has to play coy due to the fact that there’s as yet no nominee, you will notice what is missing in this picture: the idea that the nominee himself, now most likely Mitt Romney, will have any ideas of his own to which Congressional Republicans will have to accommodate themselves. This is part of a broader pattern: outside of the party’s most moderate precincts – where Romney is seen as a bulwark against conservatives – Republicans who have resigned themselves to Romney have done so, more or less, on the theory that he can be brought around to do things the party’s various constituencies want him to do. This is the opposite of the thing we normally look for in a president: leadership in setting the agenda of the party and the country. As such, it represents an experiment, or at least a throwback to the late-19th century model of how the presidency operates. Can the GOP beat Barack Obama and run the country the next four years without presidential leadership?
If you’ve read many endorsements or apologias for supporting Romney, you’re familiar with the genre. Let’s start with the National Review’s always-incisive Ramesh Ponnuru, who endorsed Romney in December. If there were compelling arguments to be made for Romney’s ideas, Ramesh would make them. He waves a few times in the direction of Romney’s various current positions (Romney “now favors a market-oriented reform to Medicare”), but nearly all of his argument for Romney as acceptable to conservatives are based on the idea that the party would lead Romney, rather than the other way around:
If Mitt Romney becomes president, he will almost certainly be dealing with John Boehner as speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. While they, too, have their conservative detractors, they are the most conservative congressional leaders Republicans have had in modern times, and they will exert a rightward influence on the Romney administration. If they send him legislation to repeal Obamacare, cut taxes, or reform entitlements, he will sign it where Obama would veto it. If at some other point in his presidency a liberal-run Congress sends him tax increases, he will veto them where Obama would sign. Compared with President Obama, a President Romney would do more to protect the defense budget.
A President Romney’s judicial nominees would be superior to President Obama’s simply because he would not be trying to stack the bench with liberal activists. But they are likely to far exceed that low bar. Each Republican president since the Nixon-Ford era has nominated a higher percentage of conservatives as justices to the Supreme Court than his predecessor. That’s mostly a testament to the growth and development of the conservative legal network. Romney is likely to look for nominees whom conservative lawyers like – Robert Bork is a top adviser – who are professionally accomplished, and who cannot be portrayed as extreme. If Republicans hold the Senate they will almost certainly be confirmed. If they do not, they will probably be confirmed.
Romney’s regulatory agencies will be relatively restrained. His appointees to the National Labor Relations Board will not punish Boeing for locating a plant in a right-to-work state. He will act, within the limits of his legal authority, to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from imposing expensive restrictions on carbon emissions. He will reinstate conscience protections for pro-life health-care workers.
It’s true that almost any Republican president, not just Romney, would do these things. But that’s the point.
Then there’s Ponnuru’s National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg. Jonah has long been my favorite NR writer, someone I respect and almost always agree with. He hasn’t really taken sides in this trainwreck of a primary season, but in early February he laid out what he thought was the best argument for Romney:
Even if Romney is a Potemkin conservative (a claim I think has merit but is also exaggerated), there is an instrumental case to be made for him: It is better to have a president who owes you than to have one who claims to own you.
A President Romney would be on a very short leash…If elected, Romney must follow through for conservatives and honor his vows to repeal Obamacare, implement Representative Paul Ryan’s agenda, and stay true to his pro-life commitments.
Moreover, Romney is not a man of vision. He is a man of duty and purpose. He was told to “fix” health care in ways Massachusetts would like. He was told to fix the 2002 Olympics. He was told to create Bain Capital. He did it all. The man does his assignments.
How about RedState’s own Martin Knight, offering his own take on Goldberg’s column?
I don’t believe he’ll be a Conservative out of gratitude, i.e. because he’ll “owe” us – it will be because he’ll have no choice. Keeping the GOP’s conservative rank-and-file happy would not be just be a matter of political profit for a President Romney, it will be a matter of political survival.
…I believe Romney would be a strong and able President and he would be fiscally better than George W. Bush and most importantly stratospherically better than Barack Obama. I believe he will be pro-life and pro-gun in word and deed throughout his Presidency and that he would nominate conservative judges and push them through the Senate.
I believe all this because I believe that a President Mitt Romney would seek a second term in 2016. He’s too ambitious not to, and if there’s anything no one can doubt, it’s the breadth and depth of Mitt Romney’s ambition. And he certainly would not want to be a one-term President. Which is where we’ll own him, lock, stock and barrel.
…[U]nlike 2008 and 2012, in 2016 Conservatives are going to have lots and lots of … options.
And you’d best believe that a President Romney and his staff are going to be well aware of those options and what would happen if he fails to walk the line – and the need for him to do so would be even more acute given how little he’s trusted by Conservatives in the first place. No Republican White House would want a repeat of 1992 – and with so many viable alternatives, and a significantly more organized conservative base, it’s not so much that a President Romney would fear not being able to win the General Election in November 2016, it’s that he might just become the very first sitting President to experience the humiliation of failing to win his own Party’s nomination in the Primaries.
In point of fact, I think Martin’s argument overlooks two points: (1) Romney will have enormous tools at his disposal to raise money, change the primary rules, etc. to throttle off any primary challenge and (2) even if all this works, a re-elected Romney after 2016 would have no such constraints. But take the argument as it is; it is still primarily an argument that Romney will be led rather than lead.
Next up is Leon Wolf, another RedState Contributor I greatly respect and usually agree with. Leon’s point, written in early January:
Now, Mitt Romney has often been criticized (fairly and completely accurately, in my opinion) as a flip-flopper. I agree that this is less than a desirable trait and if I had my druthers I would prefer someone like Rick Perry who has been more or less consistently conservative for a relatively long time (an easier feat in Texas than Massachusetts, no doubt, but that is beside the point). However, the most salient point I can divine about this criticism, given the fact that Romney’s latest flops are all to the right, is that Romney is being criticized for accurately perceiving that he needs conservatives. Yes, I would agree that Romney would bear careful watching as President and constant egging on from Congress, but I would certainly prefer someone who panders to me for political reasons than someone who openly gives me the finger in order to pander to centrists and/or leftists, which is exactly what we have gotten in terms of Presidential nominees for the last 20 years.
Then we have former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, writing back in October; Gerson is hardly a trusted movement conservative, but he’s an eloquent writer. What’s his “conservative case for Mitt Romney”?
So are Romney’s current views his most authentic ones? On some issues – say, health care policy – it is difficult for an outsider to tell.
…Even conservatives who buy none of these explanations may calculate that Romney is acceptable. Precisely because he has a history of ideological heresy, it would be difficult for him to abandon his current, more conservative iteration. He has committed himself on key conservative issues. Having flipped, he could not flop without risking a conservative revolt. As a result, conservatives would have considerable leverage over a Romney administration.
There is, however, a less-cynical conservative case for Romney. Opponents accuse him of political pragmatism – of which he is clearly guilty. But Romney might put his pragmatism to good use. His economic advisers are solidly conservative. Before the primary season is done, we are likely to see some serious entitlement and tax reform proposals. A leadership team of Romney, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might be just what the moment requires: prudent adults who are conservative but not too far ahead of the public.
In other words, the best arguments for Romney as the leader of the party are arguments that Romney will not lead the party but follow it, subsume his own ideas and inclinations and cater to what the voters and his caucus on Capitol Hill seem to want. How does this work in practice? Let’s look at what supply-side analyst James Pethokoukis, one of the sharpest minds on the right-leaning economic punditry beat, wrote about Romney’s original 59-point economic plan:
[I]magine private-equity boss Romney back at Bain Capital sitting down to read his team’s 59-point turnaround plan for some troubled widget maker. And imagine if the first two action items started with the phrase “Maintain current ….”
Romney probably wouldn’t bother reading any further before tossing the report in the trash, calling a meeting, and cracking heads. Heck, if Private Equity Romney were called in to turn around Romney Campaign Inc., axing CEO Romney might be the first move on his to-do list – especially after looking at last night’s numbers from Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri.
Pethokoukis included a number of suggestions for how Romney could overhaul his agenda, but he wrote much more glowingly about Romney’s revised plan. Here’s what Rush Limbaugh, who has been critical of Romney, took away from Pethokoukis and his fellow supply-sider Larry Kudlow enthusing about the improved plan:
[D]o you remember a piece by Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal not long ago, I quoted from it repeatedly. Henninger’s point was that Romney is not naturally a conservative. He’s gonna have to be nudged. He’s going to have be shoved in that direction. And here we have a long campaign, and it looks like that’s happening. Jim Pethokoukis writes critically of Romney’s 59 point plan. The next day Romney calls or his office calls Kudlow and says, “Hey, big change coming on the economy. We got two new economic proposals, and it’s all supply-side.” So Henninger was right. He’s being nudged to the right. It’s all good, folks, it’s all good. The long campaign is just fine.
And maybe this is all good; maybe it’s time to throw out the book of the past 100 years. Maybe the second decade of the 21st century will be the time for a party that is run by legislative consensus and responsiveness to popular demand, rather than principled leadership. Maybe for once, public servants will do nothing but serve us what we ask them for. Stranger things have happened. But it will be a grand new experiment, running a presidential campaign and maybe a presidency without the candidate’s own opinions entering anywhere into the picture. It remains to be seen if the experiment will succeed.