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If flip-flopping is Romney’s greatest weakness, his business experience is probably his greatest strength. But can the two be separated? Consultants don’t have ideology; they have strategy. Their job is to take their current client’s side, whatever it is, and put a good polish on it while restoring whatever’s underneath.
Think about what Romney actually did while running Bain Capital. Stephen Kaplan, the Chicago business professor, argues that he should get credit just for having run something. But former Bain Capital partner Eric Kriss, who also worked with Romney in the Massachusetts governor’s office, has warned people not to read too much into the gig. “Mitt ran a private equity firm, not a cement company,” Kriss told The New York Times in 2007. “He was not a businessman in the sense of running a company. He was a great presenter, a great spokesman, and a great salesman.”
Those who have worked with Romney cite his flexibility as a virtue. “He’s spent his entire life in a world that’s constantly changing, where he has had to modify his thinking in order to address problems,” says Scott Meadow, his friend and former business partner. “I think it demonstrates something that I’ve always seen: an ability to adapt and change, and a willingness to accept that his thinking evolves. And not being afraid to change his mind and go in a different direction because that seems like the appropriate thing to do.” Meadow says Romney is “loyal to success,” whatever form it takes. “He’s flexible because he’s had to be,” Meadow says.
A Consultant for the GOP
Which is why Romney’s book, his speeches, his debate performances, and his interviews are not necessarily indicators of who Romney is and what he believes. Aside from being rhetorically pro-business, Romney appears to have no consistent ideological outlook. The best way to understand his campaign is as a top-of-the-line consultant’s report on the contemporary GOP.
His first set of major policy proposals, a 150-page PDF document titled “Believe In America,” has all the worst hallmarks of consultancy. It also reflects the baseline incoherence and inconsistencies of the client.
The document is heavy on information but light on insight, long on minutiae yet short on solutions. It has no sense of proportion: An appendix offers a 59-point list of “policy proposals that will get America back to work,” from minor bureaucratic tweaks (“establish fixed timetables for all resource development approval”) to specific legislative updates (“reduce corporate income tax rate to 25 percent”) to undefined wholesale federal overhauls (“undertake fundamental restructuring of government programs and service”). The proposals Romney does elaborate on tend to be carefully couched in the language of possibility and technocratic tinkering. “A robust investment tax credit, extending the write-off for capital expenditures for an additional year, and a lower payroll tax,” he writes, “could each have a positive effect if properly structured.” Implementation—management—is the key.
This constant hedging appears designed to avoid commitment whenever possible, but it also mirrors the indecision of the Republican base. Medicare—the single biggest driver of America’s long-term debt—is mentioned just three times in “Believe In America,” including a familiar jab at Obama for cutting $500 billion from the program to fund his health care overhaul. By the beginning of October, Romney could be found cajoling GOP voters in Florida with the line, “When you see your friends with signs that say keep your hands off our Medicare, they are absolutely right.”
Romney’s eventual Medicare overhaul proposal, unveiled that month, was yet another attempt to have it both ways. Like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney embraced “premium support,” a softer variant on individual vouchers that would give each Medicare beneficiary a set amount of money with which to purchase his own insurance plan from a menu of government-approved options. But perhaps sensitive to the barrage of criticism Ryan has taken for proposing to “end Medicare as we know it,” Romney opted to keep a government-run, fee-for-service Medicare plan as an option. “Unlike the Ryan Plan, Romney’s approach keeps traditional Medicare available as one of the insurance plans that seniors can choose among,” Romney’s campaign explained on his website. (A few weeks later, Ryan offered a version of his own plan that includes a Medicare-like option.)
Yet Romney’s plan doesn’t quite preserve Medicare as it has always been offered; under his plan, even “traditional” Medicare would be subject to the limits of premium support. Asked whether Romney’s plan could reasonably be described as ending Medicare as we know it, a Romney policy advisor admits that the structure of the program would be altered in the future. Why the hedge? Despite Romney’s oft-stated belief in the power of competition, he is not confident about it in the case of Medicare. His policy advisor warns that the effects of competition are still unclear, and it would be a mistake to eliminate a fee-driven system that has worked for years. Yet the whole premise of reform is that Medicare doesn’t work. In No Apology, Romney talks about the “burden” the program imposes. When outlining his reform proposal in October, he warned that “Medicare will go bankrupt at some point.”
In this, his second primary campaign, the problem that consultant Romney has chosen to solve is not the Medicare crisis, the federal debt burden, or sluggish economic growth. Instead, it is how to appeal to a Republican Party torn between Tea Party activists and Beltway moderates. Romney’s insistence on having it both ways at every opportunity reveals not just his own incoherence but a party with irreconcilable goals: a leaner federal government that cuts no major programs, a balanced budget with a beefed-up defense budget, entitlements that are reformed and reduced but never cut or changed. What does Mitt Romney believe? Like the PDF says, he believes in America—and anything America wants him to believe.
Peter Suderman is an associate editor at reason.