Moderate Mitt isn’t so moderate

October 8, 2012

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush raised the top marginal income tax rate from 28 percent to 31 percent to help cut the deficit. In 2003, Sen. John McCain introduced the Senate’s first cap-and-trade plan to cut carbon emissions. In 2006, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney used federal dollars, state taxes and an individual mandate as the foundation for the first successful state-run universal health-care law. In 2008, President George W. Bush pushed and signed a deficit-financed tax cut called “The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008” to help ease the pain of the recession.


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Rebecca Barnett/AP

Keep these policies in mind as you consider the agenda that brought us “Moderate Mitt” in last Wednesday’s debate. Romney promised he wouldn’t raise a cent in taxes to retire a debt far larger than the one George H. W. Bush faced. He had nothing at all to say about climate change. He said health-care reform should proceed state-by-state, but he proposed Medicaid cuts that would make it impossible for any other states to do what Massachusetts did in 2006. He offered no short-term help to the unemployed, proposing instead to concentrate on long-term initiatives like energy independence. He again proclaimed allegiance to his budget promises, which would mean a 40 percent cut in everything but Medicare, Social Security and defense spending by 2016, though the only specific cut he mentioned was to PBS.

The list of Mitt’s moderate moments, meanwhile, goes something like this. “Regulation is essential,” he said. “You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation.” He also swore fealty to Medicare -- though he wants to move it into a premium support system in which seniors use a capped voucher to choose between Medicare and private insurers. He forswore any intention to give tax cuts to the rich, or really to anybody, though he didn’t explain how that would work given his promise to cut tax rates by 20 percent across-the-board.

As the Republican party has moved to the right in recent years, so too has our standard for what counts as a moderate Republican. These days, if you’re willing to admit that President Obama was probably born in the United States, that the U.S. Treasury probably shouldn’t default on its debts, and that someone, somewhere, might occasionally have to pay taxes, then congratulations, you’re a moderate Republican!

The fact is that a moderate Republican today is an arch-conservative from only a few short years ago. A moderate Republican today tends to believe the individual mandate is unconstitutional, even though moderate Republicans came up with the idea in the early-90s. A moderate Republican today thinks the jury is still out on global warming, even though moderate Republicans were leading the charge to do something about it during George W. Bush’s administration. A moderate Republican today believes we should make all of the Bush tax cuts permanent even though moderate Republicans were trying to make the Bush tax cuts smaller in 2001 and 2003, when the country was much better positioned to afford tax cuts.

Why this shift? Because moderate Republicans of today fear their base more than they fear independent voters. Republican presidents have come to learn, as George W. Bush did with immigration reform and George H.W. Bush did with tax increases, that conservative anger can turn congressional Republicans against their agenda. Congressional Republicans have learned that conservative anger can lead to successful primary challenges. Swing voters, meanwhile, have fewer policy litmus tests and are far less organized.

Not all Republicans need to fear conservative revolts. On Wednesday, Moderate Mitt talked of his success working with Democrats in Massachusetts -- as well he should. Romney was very effective at working with Democrats in Massachusetts. But he didn’t have a choice. Democrats had veto-proof majorities in the legislatures, and the partisan breakdown of the state is such that Romney couldn’t have hoped to win reelection without substantial Democratic support.

The problem for those of us who would like to see the return of Moderate Mitt -- and I count myself in that number -- is that there’s little reason to believe Romney would find himself forced to work with Democrats if he was president, at least at the outset. Rather, a Romney win is likely to also mean Republicans take the House and the Senate. Romney’s worries, in that world, will be losing conservative Republicans in the House and inspiring a primary challenge in 2016. There’s no way he’ll pick fights with the right in order to govern from the center. And given that Republicans already don’t trust Romney, he’s likely to have less leeway than the typical Republican president in redefining what “right” is, the way George W. Bush did with the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act.

We’ve seen what Romney does when he fears the right: He folds. That’s how his tax cut, which was initially modest, grew so large. That’s how he yoked himself to the insanely large cuts required by the Cut, Cap and Balance pledge. That’s how he signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge after opposing it in Massachusetts. That’s how he came to call the individual mandate, a policy he’d passed in his state and publicly championed for the nation, unconstitutional. 

Romney isn’t an ideological moderate. He’s a pragmatic executive. When he needs to govern from the center, he does. When he needs to lurch to the right, off he goes. So if you want to know how he’ll govern, don’t listen to what he says. Look at who he has reason to fear.

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