Mitt Romney’s quest for conservative acceptance.
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Romney touted the support of a Massachusetts pro-life group whose endorsement he had denied accepting just five years earlier while running for governor. When Sen. Sam Brownback pointed out that this pro-choice history was captured neatly on YouTube, Romney scolded the pro-life standout: “I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they’ve been pro-life longer than I have.”
Whether it stemmed from rejection or just recognition that he needed a different kind of primary voter, Romney has been cooler to conservatives in his second run. In fact, some movement voices complained that the frontrunner didn’t reach out more. “He needs to reach out to every one of us who’s sitting at this table, and to all the other conservative leaders throughout the United States to make sure he’s not just speaking to a few select groups, that he’s speaking to the grass roots,” said Idaho GOP Congressman Raul Labrador, according to Boise’s Spokesman-Review.
Others insist that Romney needs to give conservatives a place at the table—via jobs in his administration. “Yes, Romney has held numerous meetings with conservative leaders and some meetings with past or present Republican presidential opponents,” writes Matt Towery in Newsmax. “The problem is that he reportedly never offers any hope of their being part of his campaign, much less part of a potential Romney presidential administration.”
ROMNEY DOES NEED to give conservatives a stake in his administration, but not necessarily by promising jobs for the lads. His first step was embracing the fiscal course charted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan—far less tentatively than many of his reputedly more conservative primary opponents. Ryan responded with surprisingly enthusiastic support for Romney in the Wisconsin primary and beyond. Ryan is often discussed as a possible Romney running mate, but that misses the point. As long as Romney is willing to publicly back Ryan’s plans for transforming Medicare into a premium support system, the Democrats will make Ryan his running mate no matter who the Republicans actually nominate for vice president in Tampa.
Keepers of the conventional wisdom tend to focus on the downside of such a Romney-Ryan pairing: it leaves the GOP ticket vulnerable to Democratic “Mediscare” tactics, which could repel senior citizens and some swing voters. Even some conservatives worry that only Ryan can effectively defend his budget proposals. A Tea Party senator complained to this writer that Ryan’s Medicare plan can be explained in an article, but not at campaign sound bite length.
The upside is that backing Ryan ties Romney to a comprehensive conservative domestic agenda. It’s true that even some grassroots conservatives still need convincing on the question of entitlement reform. Delusions that foreign aid makes up a bigger portion of the federal budget than Medicare die hard. But Ryan’s Path to Prosperity draws a sharp contrast with Obama, putting Romney on the side of less spending and taxes plus much smaller deficits over the long term.
Ronald Reagan borrowed the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda from Congress when he came out for the Kemp-Roth tax cut. Reagan had raised taxes to close budget deficits as governor of California; Barry Goldwater had voted against the Kennedy-Johnson tax cuts as a senator in the 1960s. Just as Reagan became a convert to supply-side economics by signing Jack Kemp’s ideas into law, Romney can shed his reputation for timidity and become the face of free-market entitlement reform by doing the same for Paul Ryan’s.
THE DEBATE BETWEEN Obama’s budget, which projects deficits as far as the eye can see and couldn’t get a single vote from either party in Congress, and Ryan’s, which passed the full House and reduces the long-term debt to sustainable levels, provides Romney another opportunity. His economic adviser Glenn Hubbard calculates that paying for the president’s promises would require an across-the-board tax increase of 11 percent on people making less than $200,000 a year. The fact that Obama’s budget numbers don’t add up without a middle-class tax increase suggests a possibility besides presidential innumeracy: maybe such a tax increase is in the cards.
It’s not exactly a farfetched conspiracy theory. When the Bush tax cuts were first set to expire at the end of 2010, Obama asked Congress to let them lapse for upper-income earners. Congressional Republicans, fortified by that year’s elections, demanded that the tax cuts be preserved in full. Obama signed into law a compromise passed by the lame-duck Congress that kept all the Bush-era individual tax rates in place, but promised he wouldn’t extend the higher-level tax cuts again.
That compromise was just a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts, which will now expire again in 2013. Obama again says he wants to keep them only for the middle class. But this time, he will be safely reelected when he must make his choice. If Republicans fail to pass a bill extending only the middle-class tax cuts, Obama may let all the tax cuts expire and blame GOP intransigence. “The advantage of this strategy is that it would yield a lot of deficit reduction without the need to get any legislation through Congress,” writes Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg View. “It is thus more achievable than other deficit-reduction plans.” The disadvantages include that this surprise tax hike would be totally mendacious and economically counterproductive. If Romney can make the electorate see this as a real possibility—admittedly no sure thing—he can appeal to both conservatives and swing voters.
OBAMA CAN ALSO HELP Romney solve his problem of either overreaching in his pursuit of conservatives or appearing to neglect them entirely. Polls have shown Republicans were least sold on Romney when the nomination race seemed unsettled. Satisfaction with him as the nominee has generally improved in the absence of plausible alternatives. Now the only alternative will be Obama.
A Pew Research Center survey released between Santorum and Gingrich’s departure from the race showed 88 percent of Republicans who voted against Romney in the primaries saying they would support him in the general election.
Romney generally won’t have to try as hard to appear more conservative than Obama. He also won’t have anyone trying to outbid him for conservative support. The Constitution Party has nominated a former congressman for president and the Libertarian Party looks set to choose a former governor, but there is little in either party’s electoral track record to suggest they will emerge as a serious threat in a genuinely winnable race.
Obama will try to blur the ideological distinctions by trying to look tougher on Osama bin Laden than Romney while also bringing up the Massachusetts health care plan. But after four years, the president is pretty well defined in the eyes of conservative voters, who will be as faithful as their options. Candidates like Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry were able to make the Bushes look like titans of conservatism.
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