A very strange argument for Mitt Romney

August 29, 2012

The first two nights of the Republican National Convention ended with stirring, rousing speeches. They just weren’t stirring, rousing speeches that made much sense as endorsements of Mitt Romney.

Chris Christie and Paul Ryan hit the same themes. We have hard choices facing us. We need leaders who won’t flinch before those choices. Leaders who won’t be deterred by the polls. Leaders who won’t compromise their principles. Leaders who won’t duck the tough issues. Leaders who won’t hide the hard truths.

That description arguably works for Christie and Ryan. That's their brand, even if it's selectively applied. But whether you love Romney or you hate him, do these lines really sound like a description of him? Is his political history really that of a bold, poll-defying, truth-talker?

Mary Altaffer/AP

Ryan was emphatic in his speech. "So here is our pledge. We will not duck the tough issues," he promised. "We will lead. "

Christie was no less forceful. “It's easy for our leaders to say, ‘Not us, not now', in taking on the really tough issues,” he said on Tuesday. “And unfortunately we have stood silently by and let them get away with it.  But tonight, I say enough.”

Here is what Romney, so far in this campaign, has said. No changes to any entitlement programs for any seniors for the next 10 years. No specifics on how quickly his Medicare vouchers will grow for future seniors. No specifics on which tax breaks he'll eliminate in order to offset the multi-trillion dollar cost of his tax cuts. No specific plan naming the cuts he'll make to reach his $7 trillion target. No specifics on how he'll equalize tax treatment of employer and individual health care. It is a campaign based on the principle of "not us, not now."

"Real leaders do not follow polls," Christie continued. "Real leaders change polls."

And perhaps they do. But so far, the Romney campaign appears to have followed quite a number of polls.

In 2009, Romney wrote an op-ed for USA Today in which he advised President Obama to apply "the lessons we learned in Massachusetts" to his health-care reform. Among those lessons was that "using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages 'free riders' to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others." That is to say, among those lessons was to include an individual mandate in the plan. Romney later said the mandate was "unconstitutional."

In February, Romney said, "The president tells us that without his intervention things in Detroit would be worse. I believe that without his intervention things there would be better.” In April, under fire for opposing the auto bailout, Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's top communications adviser, said, Romney's “position on the bailout was exactly what President Obama followed. I know it infuriates them to hear that. The only economic success that President Obama has had is because he followed Mitt Romney’s advice.”

Tonight, Ryan said Obama didn't do enough to "correct" the housing crisis. Romney's initial position on housing was, “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom.” Later, he said, “The idea that somehow this is going to cure itself by itself is probably not real. There’s going to have to be a much more concerted effort to work with the lending institutions and help them take action, which is in their best interest and the best interest of the homeowners.” The campaign never released an actual housing policy.

During the debt ceiling debate, Romney remained silent for months on end. Critics -- including on the right -- joked that he'd joined "the Mittness protection program." Then, after the deal was struck and Congress was about to vote, he released a statement saying, "while I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama’s lack of leadership has placed Republican members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal.” It is hard to see that episode as either a display of tough leadership or indifference to polls.

Indeed, it's difficult to think of a single issue where Romney has defied the polls to tell his party something they didn't want to hear. He raised his hand when Bret Baier asked the participants at a Fox News debate whether they'd oppose a deal that include $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in taxes. He backed off his once strongly stated belief that global warming was caused by humans. He moved from being pro-choice to pro-life, and from holding "progressive" views to being "severely conservative."

There are good arguments for Romney. He's an effective manager with an agile mind. He's got a proven track record as a CEO, and he gained a unique vantage point on the economy during his time in private equity. He was an unusually accomplished governor of Massachusetts, even if he's got a complicated relationship with some of those achievements.

But if you're looking for a guy who doesn't duck the tough issues, who never obscures the hard truths, who tells you the unpleasant facts you don't want to hear, who isn't deterred by the polls, Romney isn't your guy. Christie or Ryan may be, but Romney isn't.

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