The Romney Paradox

posted at 5:10 pm on February 1, 2008 by Bryan

I have come around to trust Mitt Romney more than John McCain or any of the other presidential candidates, and I think he is a smart and decent man who would be a fine president. He’s a leader who has shown that he knows how to fix things, and by associating himself with real conservatives from the very beginning of his campaign, he shows what kind of leader he’ll ultimately be. I’ll happily cast my vote for him when the time comes.

But I didn’t get to this point overnight, and it’s not just a rebound effect from discontent with John McCain. It’s an affirmative vote for Mitt Romney because I respect his resume, one of the finest we’ve had in a presidential contender in a long, long time. He is the most qualified candidate to take on the world’s most difficult job, by far.

As things stand right now, Romney has a tough hill to climb just to become the GOP nominee. He’s done what he could to get there, spending millions of dollars of his own money that could have been spent on yachts or small countries or whatever it is that the super-rich buy, and making the difficult but absolutely necessary transition from business to politics. But the path he took to make himself a viable candidate is also his chief weakness as a candidate. It’s the Romney Paradox, in this case the counterintuitive outcome of two very successful careers that ought to help reinforce each other, but don’t.

As a rule, Americans don’t elect business leaders straight to the presidency no matter how successful they have been. We just don’t. We elect governors, we elect generals, we elect former vice presidents and very occasionally we elect senators. We didn’t elect billionaire Ross Perot, though he did help elect Bill Clinton. We didn’t even nominate Steve Forbes, though his economic conservatism probably made a lot of sense to most Republicans when he ran and he was certainly one of the more intellectually interesting candidates available at the time. We also don’t elect congressmen, which is one of the major reasons that Duncan Hunter’s effort never took off. He had all the right ideas but none of the resume.

The reliable routes to the presidency run through governor’s mansions and the upper echelons of the Pentagon. That’s the way it is and nothing is likely to change it, because we tend to see politics and business and entirely separate spheres, and our government’s best executives either run states or win wars. That’s not an unreasonable way to see the world, since government spends much of its time regulating business, but it does produce an inherent difficulty for business leaders to make the crossover from enterprise to politics. On the left, the inherent distrust of private enterprise crosses over into unreasonableness, whether it’s John Edwards’ faux and thankfully failed populism or bashing Hillary Clinton for serving on the Wal-Mart directors board. Of all the many things that could be held against the Clintons, Wal-Mart must be the least important by several orders of magnitude. But even on the right there’s distrust of business, among some social conservatives and border security hawks. And Maverick John McCain, at least if you take his “led for patriotism, not profit” line at face value.

What does this have to do with Mitt Romney? I’m getting to that.

It should be obvious to most Americans that some amount of business acumen would be helpful to have around the White House. After last night’s Democrat debate, it’s obvious that there’s no real business sense among their contenders. Business experience would help an administration understand the role of business success and economic freedom in America’s global influence. It’s clear that many politicians, especially on the left, spend their entire lives in government and do not understand business at all. See the clip linked above. They don’t seem to grasp that you can’t be a military superpower without strong economic fundamentals, at least not for very long, and you can’t keep your military at the cutting edge without robust R&D on the business side (government-backed or not), and you can’t spread freedom by prying open markets if you don’t have healthy markets of your own. But because we don’t elect business leaders directly to the White House, we seldom have strong business sense at the top of any ticket in either party. Good presidents bring that knowledge into the cabinet with them, bad presidents don’t. Some presidents get lucky and inheret a strong economy that they get to ride while they’re in office.

This year, we do have the chance to put a serious business leader with political experience in the White House, in Mitt Romney. He is one of America’s most successful businessmen. Having been a governor, he has also taken one of the most reliable routes to the White House. Having won as a Republican in deep blue Massachusetts, on paper Romney would seem to be a very very strong candidate for the presidency. Add some national security credentials and he’s the man to beat.

But he isn’t the man to beat right now, and therein lies the Romney Paradox, the reason many conservatives haven’t embraced him. He is a Mormon, which some unreasonably hold against him (we’re electing a president, not choosing a pastor, a difference that I wish many of my fellow evangelicals understood), but which also says that he is probably a natural and instinctive social conservative. Most Mormons are, if anything, on the right end of social conservatism. That also ought to endear him to the GOP base, but because he ran for the governorship in Massachusetts he had to tack far to the left of the party to become a viable candidate there. If he had run in, say, Tennessee or Texas, he would have run a very different race on a very different set of issues than he ran and won on in Massachusetts. That’s not a knock on him, so much as it’s a reflection of the different politics at play in different states. Romney didn’t live in Texas or Tennessee.

Because he ran far to the left of the party in Massachusetts, he has had to spend the last two years or so tacking back to the right to get back into the GOP mainstream. I happen to think that that’s where he started out (including, unfortunately, his iffy stance on the 2nd Amendment), which means two things. First, that his current conservative stances represent who he really is. Second, that he is indeed a flip-flopper, having flipped toward liberalism to win Massachusetts but now flopping back to the right to win elsewhere. Being a businessman before a politician, he probably didn’t foresee how much mistrust that all of this would create among the conservative base. He’s a pragmatic fixer, not an ideologue. That mistrust plus anti-Mormon animus among my fellow evangelicals explains both the rise of Huckabee and the stasis of Romney. Add in Fred’s gravitational pull to the Reaganite right and you have yet one more drag on Romney’s campaign. He has been stuck wearing a pair of cement shoes, one named Fred and one named Mike.

Romney’s win in Massachusetts is probably the single greatest bullet point for and against his candidacy in many conservatives’ minds. If Romney hadn’t won in Massachusetts and governed well, he would not be a viable presidential candidate. Period, full stop. It wouldn’t matter if he had saved ten Olympics. It wouldn’t matter if he had turned two dozen companies around from bankruptcy to profit. We elect governors and generals, not businessmen. Romney ran in Massachusetts because that’s where he lived, and he ran to the left because that’s what the state’s conditions demanded. He is, at least, not a carpetbagger.

But the Romney Paradox is a real and lingering problem: His victory in Massachusetts helped him cross over from business to government and made him a viable presidential candidate, but at a price that keeps conservatives from getting behind him and supporting him with full throat because many of us aren’t sure we can trust him. There’s no getting around that. It is what it is.

I’ve gotten past the Romney Paradox. I hope a majority of my fellow conservatives will do the same on Super Tuesday.


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