Political Hay

What Would Mitt Do?

Romney's promise to govern by data and analysis raises alarming questions.

By 12.10.07

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Mitt Romney loves data and lusts after process.

In a recent cover profile in the Weekly Standard by the magazine's Fred Barnes, Romney is portrayed as the man who would be the CEO-in-chief of America. Says Barnes quoting Romney, a Harvard MBA: "His idea of the perfect deal is not when one side wins but when 'you find a new alternative that everybody agrees is the right way to go. That doesn't always happen.'"

Indeed.

Barnes says Romney's "approach to government is not ideological." A Romney adviser is quoted as saying of his candidate: "He's super-pragmatic. He's an eclectic conservative." And Romney himself says flatly that as president he would "insist on gathering data...and analyze the data looking for trends."

Uh-oh.

Make no mistake. If the leading candidates in the GOP presidential race are to be litmus tested as conservatives, all would cause conservatives sleepless nights. If the Reagan coalition was of economic and social conservatives combined with national security hawks, each group has something to be disturbed about with this batch of front-runners. Giuliani famously has his issues with social issues, McCain his prickly insistence on First Amendment censorship and an addiction to sounding like Al Gore on global warming and Hillary Clinton on immigration. Huckabee amazingly sounds like Ted Kennedy in his attack on supporters of economic growth as greedy, while Thompson was not only assisting the pro-choice movement as a lawyer, but has an apparent bent for trial lawyers.

Yet the Romney approach as described not only by Barnes but more importantly by Romney himself is an approach that goes far beyond any particular issue. It is, as Romney himself freely admits, all about process. Whatever the issue -- economic, social or national security -- Romney would gather the data, look for a trend and thus "you make better decisions."

This should cause conservatives to break out in cold sweats.

LET'S TAKE ROMNEY BACK to two of the most important Republican presidencies in the history of America. Let's make him a ghostly observer as the presidents in question deal with "the data" being presented to them by their advisers.

Romney's first visit would be to the Lincoln White House in 1864. There was no Oval Office in 1864 so Romney finds Old Abe in his office upstairs on the second floor of the residence. Lincoln has just been handed a memo by his Secretary of War, and the data looks pretty grim

Lincoln is staring at a sheet filled with numbers. The numbers are of Union casualties in the ten most casualty-filled battles of the Civil War thus far. The banality of ink-on-paper belies the horrific human impact behind the figures. Over thirteen thousand Union casualties at the battle of Shiloh, sixteen thousand at Second Manassas, twelve thousand at Antietam and yet again at Stone River, seventeen thousand at Chancellorsville, twenty-three thousand at Gettysburg. And so on in one battle after another stretching over the past three years.

So as our ghostly Romney studies this "data" -- now what? The conservative fear, of course, is that the "super pragmatic" Romney who places such faith in the process of data and trends would say to Lincoln exactly what the Democratic nominee of 1864, a battlefield general of the war, was saying in his campaign against Lincoln. The war is a "failure," said George McClellan. Stop it -- right now. The numbers, the kind of data so prized by a possibly future President Romney, are unmistakably ghastly. Union kids and Confederate kids -- Americans all -- are being slaughtered on a scale that dwarfs the imagination.

But what of principle here? What of the passion for the principle -- and passion plays no small role in Lincoln's adherence to principle -- that no man, woman or child should be a slave in America? What about the fundamental principle of human freedom? What about keeping the Union together? The startling thought occurs that Romney would be whispering to Lincoln that the data speaks for itself. Passion should yield to process. And that would be that, if Romney carried the day as Lincoln's adviser.

Move Romney back to the future, or at least the relatively recent past. This time his ghost is hovering over Ronald Reagan's shoulder. President Reagan is one happy guy. His tax and budget cuts have passed, and he signed them into law. The Reagan Revolution has begun. But it's now 1985 and there's a problem. David Stockman, Reagan's director of the Office of Management and Budget, a former congressman from Romney's home state of Michigan, the state where Romney's father was a star of the Republican liberal movement, is staring at reams of data. The results, as Stockman would write shortly after his angry departure from the Reagan White House, were -- from Stockman's view -- "frightening." The very idea that Reagan would stick with his tax cuts was a sign the President was in "dreamland." He was campaigning for re-election in 1984 on "false promises." Stockman -- both in real time and in his bitter memoirs published in 1986 -- was nothing if not a fountain of data. And that data's conclusion, insisted Stockman, was that the Reagan Revolution was a "failure." Reagan should abandon his passion for the principle of low taxes and cutting federal spending while restoring the military. Presumably, the Romney ghost sitting in the room with Reagan and Stockman would have agreed with...Stockman.

If decisions were all about data, then the McClellan/Stockman view of the world -- a worldview that is apparently Romney's as well -- would be the triumphs most celebrated in American history. Lincoln and Reagan would be rated not at the top of the presidential greatness scale but somewhere well down towards the bottom.

They are, of course, not viewed that way at all. The principles of Lincoln and Reagan carried the day precisely because each man was able to stare at the "data" -- however gruesome or frightening it might be -- and not blink. They are seen as great presidents and great leaders today because they understood at a visceral level that they should hold fast, refuse to yield to overwhelming demands from critics that they follow the data or that they adhere to a process that used something other than casualties or deficit projections as a measuring stick. Lincoln would not cave on the principles of holding the Union together and the most basic principle of America -- freedom. Reagan would not yield on the central conservative principle that tax cuts and less government spending were in fact the keys to America's future economic vitality.

In other words, in a battle between data and principle, both men rated recently in a poll as the top two greatest presidents in American history (Lincoln first, Reagan second) chose principle over data. They have not only been vindicated but are held out as treasured exemplars of what a president is supposed to be. Romney, already struggling with charges he has changed his principles on abortion and gay rights and indeed on when he decided it was OK to admit he was an enthusiastic Reaganite, is basing his entire campaign on the very notion that process is everything.

Gulp.

ONE OF THE SUBTLE IMAGES of Romney's recent speech on religion is perhaps not understood by Romney's advisers. Where did Romney go to deliver his talk on principle? And who introduced him? The site was the presidential library of former president George H.W. Bush -- the former president himself in his always gracious fashion introducing Romney.

Yet Romney did not need a visit to the Bush Library to understand why the Library does not contain the papers of a two-term president. The reason, of course, is that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush campaigned for the presidency in 1988 on the principle he phrased as "read my lips -- no new taxes." He won. Yet in the name of precisely the process Romney lovingly describes -- gathering data and looking for trends -- the first President Bush was persuaded by Romney-esque advisers like then-Treasury aide Richard Darman to surrender bedrock conservative principle and raise taxes. The senior Bush was advised to choose data and process over principle. He did -- and in short order had lots of time on his hands to decide the process for building a library about a one-term president while Bill and Hillary took charge.

Not to be left out of this point is the Democrat who successfully campaigned for president based on fixing the process in Washington -- Jimmy Carter. As a nuclear engineer, naval officer, successful businessman, Carter's central point in the 1976 election was about his devotion to process. Then there was that Romney predecessor as governor of Massachusetts, Democrat Michael Dukakis, who earnestly campaigned in 1988 against Bush I on a process issue, competence in government.

Would Mitt Romney make a better president than anyone on the other side? With no disrespect for Oprah -- of course.

But if conservatives have learned anything since 1964 it is this: principles count. A principle presidency always trumps a process presidency. Lincoln did better than Hoover, Reagan did better than Bush I or Carter. Better heading in the right direction with a faulty process than zipping along in the wrong direction simply because the process and the data are telling you things are wonderfully efficient. A train making exceptional time to Boston is useless if in fact you wanted to go to Miami.

Mitt Romney is clearly one decent guy, one very, very accomplished human being. He has announced where he stands on the issues of the day, putting himself head and shoulders above a Clinton, Obama or Edwards. But as conservatives head into caucus and primary season, they should not be hesitant to question what appears to be his addiction to process for the sake of process.

Go back to Fred Barnes's Romney quote, the one where Romney says he looks for a "new alternative that everybody agrees is the right way to go." What Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan shared was a core belief that in fact it was a better thing for some principles to triumph over others. "Everybody" did not agree with Lincoln that freedom was better than slavery, that keeping the Union together was better than not, or with Reagan that the free market and tax cuts philosophy was a better philosophy than one of big government and tax increases. But they went ahead anyway.

Is there a place for data? Is there value in process? Sure.

But base an entire presidency on the importance of data and process over principle? Is this what Mitt Romney would do? Is this where a Romney presidency would lead? If so, conservatives have been here before.

It is not a good place to be.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.