Romney and Boehner will govern like people who want to remain Republican standard bearers
The convenient thing about Mitt Romney’s blatant dishonesty and lack of any evident core beliefs is that it allows members of the pundit class to assume that, if elected, he will abandon all of his campaign promises and govern as a responsible moderate. It’s particularly discouraging to see this thesis advanced by Obama’s left-wing critics (see Matt Taibbi and Matt Stoller), but it also pops up from the non-Tea Party right. At The American Conservative, Scott Galupo argues that the Republican Party will veer towards the center and away from every issue that has defined their movement since 2009:
Bouie imagines that the right wing of the party is going to drive this agenda, and that Romney will in effect march like just another good soldier.
But rather than try to anticipate how a Romney administration will interact with conservative Republicans in Congress, why not step back and ask a different question: How would the GOP, as a whole, maintain enough popularity to keep its grip on the White House and Congress?
Looked at this way, Bouie’s vision of conservatives forcing Romney to impose an unpopular agenda of deep spending cuts and tax cuts for the wealthy seems farfetched. The more likely scenario is that Romney and a Republican-led Congress are going to do everything in their power to stay in power.
In practice, I think this means we could see stimulus measures that are called something other than “stimulus”; a proposal to re-close the “Donut Hole” in Medicare’s prescription drug program if ObamaCare is struck down by the Supreme Court; and, lest we forget, Medicare reforms that conveniently exempt everyone age 55 and over.
In short, liberals are dreaming (nightmaring?) if they think Republicans are going to position themselves far out of step with public opinion on budget reform and taxes. The Romney administration is going to look a lot more like Bush’s third term than Goldwater’s imaginary first term.
Galupo fails to explain why the Republican Party would suddenly abandon its current positions on budget reforms and taxes, which are already quite unpopular with voters. If Mitt Romney and Republicans at the congressional level run a national campaign on the Ryan budget (and they really have no choice at this point), they cannot immediately abandon that platform upon election and retain any credibility with movement activists.
Galupo isn’t wrong when he says that Romney and a Republican Congress are going to want to stay in power, but their jobs are going to depend as much on the conservative base as anything else. John Boehner would presumably like to retain his speakership, which why he immediately backed off his talk of retaining Obamacare’s popular provisions within thirty minutes of Republican activist criticism. To veer a little bit into pop psychology, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush remained popular with the conservative base because they always seemed like one of them, levels of government spending be damned. That same trust was never afforded to George H.W. Bush, and it seems unlikely to ever be afforded to Romney.
I would like Scott Galupo to be right, but it flies in the face of logic and recent history. What else do Republicans in Congress and Mitt Romney have to do to prove that they are more worried with seeming insufficiently conservative than with appearing out of step with public opinion on taxes and budget issues? How could it possibly seem “farfetched” for Republicans to pursue deep spending cuts and tax cuts for the wealthy when that is exactly what they pursued as soon as they won the House? If they win control of the White House and Congress on a hard-right platform and obstructing the Democratic agenda, why would they suddenly decide that adopting more of the Democratic agenda would be the way to stay in power?
In the absence of any discernable “real Romney,” it’s comforting to assume that a) at his core, he secretly believes in all the things that you believe, and b) once elected, he will pursue the exact agenda that you would like him to pursue. That dynamic also played out with Barack Obama, when people like Jane Hamsher were disappointed when they realized the president was not a fire-breathing leftist and people like David Brooks were disappointed once they learned that the president was a politician from the Democratic Party. In the cases of Obama and Romney, most of those expectations would have been dampened if people remembered what Jonathan Bernstein told us in a January/February cover story on in The Washington Monthly on campaign promises: what they say is usually how they’ll govern. Even if that person is a near-pathological liar.
Mitt Romney has campaigned as someone who recognizes the shaky ground he’s on with the most important Republican constituencies. John Boehner has governed as someone who recognizes that he faces the threat of a leadership challenge unless he toes the Tea Party line. There is zero evidence that either man will stop recognizing these factors if they can consolidate power in November. They will govern as people who want to win re-election, but you have to win the primary before you move on to the general election.