For the last three years, the Republican Party has been driven by what it’s against. Since taking office, President Barack Obama has created a target-rich environment for the GOP: an $800 billion stimulus that failed to deliver on promises to reduce unemployment, a $1 trillion health care overhaul that remains deeply unpopular, three years of record spending, and a $5 trillion increase in the national debt. 

In 2010, the party successfully unified around an anti-spending message that helped it retake the House. And the base has rallied around the cause: When Fox News asked Republican primary voters about their priorities in October, 76 percent responded that economic issues “such as taxes and government spending” would be most important in deciding their votes for the party’s presidential nominee. Yet even as Republicans frame the 2012 elections as a referendum on the size and scope of government, the party allegedly in favor of reducing both is on the verge of nominating for president not a small-government firebrand or a free market apostle but a management consultant more interested in tweaking hated policies than doing away with them. 

He’s not just any consultant, of course. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP’s last presidential nomination, earned an estimated $250 million fortune in the management advice business—first as a consultant, then as CEO of a private equity firm spun off from his consultancy. Romney turned around a series of companies, helped introduce major innovations to the art of business management, saved a Winter Olympics from the brink of scandal and bankruptcy, and even righted the ship when one of the most prominent management consulting companies in the world was foundering. Then he applied the lessons he learned along the way to his gig as the Bay State’s governor, with mixed results. And now Romney is bringing his life-long business-strategy ethic to the uphill task of running for president. 

After squeaking out a victory in the January 3 Iowa caucus, Romney was well positioned to win the GOP nomination. But the consultant’s road to the White House is paved with built-in contradictions, which Romney has a tendency to display all at once. At a speech in Washington last October, for example, the candidate made his pitch to conservative activists, unveiling a framework plan to cut spending and reform Medicare. Warning that it would require “tough choices,” he talked up the need to identify $500 billion in annual federal budget savings. There are “a lot” of federal programs that should “either be dramatically scaled back or cut,” he said. “We’re going to eliminate or cut programs that are not absolutely essential—even when we like them.”

What tough choices was Romney willing to make? Which popular programs would he eliminate? Just at the part of the speech where you’d expect some details, he shifted focus, promising to “preserve our commitment to a military that is so strong that no nation would ever think of testing it.” In fact, Romney swore he would “reverse Obama’s massive defense cuts.” And the alleged budget-cutter wasn’t done criticizing the president for his spending reductions. Later in the same speech, he even scolded Obama for weakening Medicare, vowing to “protect” and “improve” this most budget-busting of entitlements. Obama is “the only president in history,” Romney said, almost in wonder, “who has cut Medicare for seniors.” Rest assured that a Romney administration would reverse those cuts, too.

On paper, Romney was supposedly offering the gathered conservatives a vision of a “simpler, smaller, and smarter” federal government. But most of what little he offered in the way of specified cuts were drops in the ocean of a $3.6 trillion budget: defunding Amtrak ($1.6 billion a year) and Planned Parenthood ($300 million), eliminating foreign aid (which cost $49 billion in 2011) to “countries that oppose American interests,” reducing the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (less than $1 billion a year combined). 

The gap between Romney’s cautious proposals and the GOP grassroots’ anti-spending fervor might seem like a paradox, but it’s easy to see how it came about. The last time Republicans held power in Washington, they jacked up discretionary non-defense spending by more than 60 percent, passed a new prescription drug entitlement, created a major new security bureaucracy that now costs $50 billion a year, and helped pass a $150 billion economic stimulus plan. The party’s most recent nominee for president was so enthusiastic about the Troubled Asset Relief Program that he suspended his campaign to help it pass. 

In running an election roadshow that rails against bad policy while proposing only to tinker with it, Romney is holding up a mirror to the weaknesses and internal contradictions of the client he’s pitching. He is doing what top management consultants always do: presenting the customer with a slicker, better packaged, but fundamentally unchanged version of itself. 

A Consultant’s Consultant

The old joke about management consultants is that they charge you to drink your coffee and then tell you what it tastes like. But the most successful consultants—and by any definition, that includes Mitt Romney—tend to do more than simply sip and summarize. 

At its core, the business is based on problem solving. Management consultants ask the same basic question over and over again, explains Avik Roy, a former health policy analyst at the Romney-founded firm Bain Capital and current senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute: “If you’ve got a problem, how do you then break the problem down into discrete parts that we can then empirically address?” The job requires narrowing down mountains of data into a few key metrics, then feeding the information back to the client in executive-friendly formats such as PowerPoint slide shows, colorful pie charts, PDFs splattered with bullet points, historical line graphs, and so on.

Clients come into the process with a problem-solving challenge of their own: figuring out what they really want. Often, Roy says, that turns out to be “political legitimacy and blame dispersion for unpopular decisions.” Solving that problem requires a certain diplomatic sensitivity as well as a judgment-free willingness to roll with the punches. “This is a client-oriented business, so you need to be client-oriented,” Roy explains, which means ensuring that the final product isn’t too upsetting. “You want them to be satisfied with the output.” 

Consulting work has defined Romney’s private-sector career. From the time he left school until the time he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994, Mitt Romney never had a job that didn’t involve some flavor of management consulting. After graduating in the top 5 percent of his class at Harvard Business School in 1975, he headed straight into the upper echelons of the burgeoning consulting industry. He spent a few years at the Boston Consulting Group, then joined Bain & Company, another top-tier consultancy. He founded the company’s private equity offshoot, Bain Capital, in 1984. But he didn’t leave management consulting behind. 

According to Stephen Kaplan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, private equity investors in the early 1980s focused primarily on financial engineering, “where they would borrow the money, they would give management a lot of equity, and then they would monitor it. But they didn’t really help on the business side.” That changed with Bain Capital. Romney’s “big innovation,” Kaplan says, was “to bring consulting resources along with the financial engineering.” 

That innovation helped make Romney a rich man. Today Romney’s estimated worth is somewhere between $190 million and $250 million, much of it acquired during his tenure as Bain Capital’s top executive. Romney so excelled at the job that he eventually became a consultant’s consultant. When his former colleagues at Bain & Company ran into financial trouble in 1990, Romney was called back in, named CEO, and asked to turn the business around. With the help of new management and financial restructuring, he did.

What did Romney get out of the turnaround? Not a hefty salary. At that point, he was so wealthy that he hardly needed it, reportedly taking a symbolic paycheck of $1 a year. A few years later, when he was brought in to save the Salt Lake City Olympics Committee after the organization’s management ran into trouble, he donated his entire $1.4 million salary to charity. 

Romney wasn’t in it for the money; he was in it for the love of the game. “He’s doing what comes naturally,” says Scott Meadow, a friend and former venture capitalist who worked with Romney on multiple business deals during the last 25 years. “He enjoys the creativity that goes with problem solving, and he’s good at it.” For Romney, the turnarounds at Bain & Company and the Olympics were just fresh problems that needed to be solved. 

Governor Romney

In 1994 Romney ran for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts as a Republican against the liberal icon and longtime incumbent Ted Kennedy. He lost by 17 percentage points, but he didn’t give up his political ambitions. As he had helped so many businesses do, he took stock and adjusted his strategy. In 2002 he ran for governor, touting his business experience and promising to resolve a budget crisis without raising taxes. He also looked left, reaching out to the state’s liberal voters and assuring a local TV reporter that he was a “moderate…not a partisan.” “My views are progressive,” he said. This time he won. Romney, who reportedly invested $6 million of his own money in the campaign, again declined to take a salary. 

When Romney took office, the most pressing difficulty was that Massachusetts was in the midst of what The Boston Globe described in 2008 as a “fiscal meltdown.” The state was short $650 million for the current year’s budget, and budget planners quickly realized that the following year would be even worse. Without a course correction, the deficit was projected to run as high as $3 billion—in a state with a $23 billion total budget. 

Romney and his team repaired the budget using a process similar to the one he used in his days as a management consultant: gather data, identify key metrics, define the problem, apply a solution. But this left him with little choice but to go soft on his campaign promise of no tax hikes. 

Romney staffers broke the budget down into its component parts, then settled on what they understood to be the main problem: insufficient tax revenue. In particular, they told the governor, the state was losing money because  Massachusetts banks were avoiding taxes by moving money into minimally taxed real estate trusts. So Romney charged his revenue commissioner with collecting from the banks. He also imposed what the Club for Growth, a low-tax advocacy group, would later describe as “a slew of fee hikes and tax loophole closures,” totaling $259 million in 2006. Although he would also convince the state legislature to allow $343 million in cuts to both city and state functions, Gov. Romney throughout his tenure continued to impose hundreds of millions in new fees while eliminating targeted tax breaks. And as the budget picture brightened, his appetite for spending restraint weakened: According to the Club for Growth, the state’s proposed 2007 budget was 11.2 percent larger than the previous year’s. 

But Romney also made sure to remain client focused. And his new clients, which included both the liberal-leaning population of Massachusetts and the state’s Democratic legislature, wanted universal health insurance. The state already boasted the highest insurance coverage rate in the United States (around 94 percent), but the public wanted even more: According to a 2008 report in the journal Health Affairs, polls showed majorities in favor of expanding coverage. The Bay State’s “favorable political environment,” the article concluded, “encouraged leaders to act.”

This time, when Romney acted, his process was explicitly consultant driven. He hired a team of health care consultants at McKinsey, a longtime Bain & Company rival, to investigate the state’s uninsured population. The preliminary work on the law was conducted in an ideology-free zone. “They didn’t approach it from the standpoint of ‘free market—yay!’ or ‘equality—yay!’ ” says Roy. Instead, it was the usual consultant’s method: “What is the problem? Let’s analytically define the problem.” 

In his 2010 book No Apology, Romney writes that breaking down the uninsured population went a long way toward convincing him that universal health insurance was achievable. That population was made up of a few discrete classes of people, including the poor, young men who were self-employed or working for small businesses and wealthy individuals who could probably afford to purchase their own insurance. Romney describes another important discovery as “a collective epiphany”: The state’s uninsured were already receiving health care thanks to a federal law requiring hospitals to treat all comers; this was known as “uncompensated care.” 

The health policy overhaul Romney eventually signed off on had a solution for each of the groups. The poor would be shuffled into the state’s Medicaid program, the lower middle class would be given subsidies to purchase newly regulated private insurance through a state-run health exchange, and everyone else would be required to purchase health insurance or pay a fine via a provision that became known as the individual mandate. Meanwhile, the plan would help offset the cost of the subsidies by eliminating the need for an expensive hospital-based safety net for the uninsured. It was a perfect consultant’s solution: built out of a handful of data points and targeted to solve a few narrowly defined problems. 

It was also intended to be marketable, at least in the sense of furthering Romney’s political career. “What Romney had in mind when he got behind this idea,” says David Tuerk, the executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a free market think tank at Suffolk University in Massachusetts, “was creating a signature piece of legislation and getting himself to the presidency.” 

Consultant Solution, Consultant Problems

But the characteristically consultant-driven solution resulted in characteristically consultant-driven problems. One peril of the hit-and-run advisory model is that consultants don’t tend to stick around to ensure that their advice is followed, or that it works as planned. And under Romney’s 2006 health care overhaul—dubbed RomneyCare—little has worked as planned. Romney declined to run for a second term, leaving office in January 2007. But in the years after his signature legislative achievement, RomneyCare has gone on to exacerbate the long-run problems it was supposed to head off. 

The plan’s tripartite health coverage scheme—Medicaid, mandate, and subsidies—did manage to increase health insurance coverage, although not quite to 100 percent; according to state data, about 98 percent of the population is now covered. But it failed to eliminate spending on the hospital safety net. In fact, in recent years the cost of uncompensated care has steadily increased, rising 5 percent between 2008 and 2009 and a whopping 15 percent the following year. 

Cost problems have plagued the program almost since its inception. In an April 2006 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Romney promised that under his plan “the costs of health care will be reduced.” Yet the overall cost of the program is projected to run roughly $2 billion over budget during the next 10 years. According to a June 2011 paper co-authored by the Beacon Hill Institute’s Tuerk, state health expenditures have gone up by a total of $414 million since the law was passed, while private health insurance costs have risen by $4.3 billion. The cost spike has been big enough that state health-insurance commissioners have worried publicly that it may jeopardize the system’s continued existence. They have also cautioned that medical spending could push both employers and patients into bankruptcy. Romney’s Democratic successor, Deval Patrick, has cited those additional costs to justify more taxes and fees, including a $1-a-pack hike on cigarettes and $89 million in added fees for state-based health insurers and providers.

Nor has the law had much success in restraining the state’s fast-rising family health insurance premiums, which on average cost more than in any other state in the nation. In a 2010 study, economists John F. Cogan and Daniel Kessler of Stanford and Glenn Hubbard of Columbia—the latter now the leader of Mitt Romney’s economic advisory team—found that RomneyCare “increased single-coverage employer-sponsored insurance premiums by about 6 percent in aggregate, and by about 7 percent for firms with fewer than 50 employees.” 

Perhaps Romney’s promise of reduced costs was merely a convenient bullet point, a way of paying lip service to the client’s interests. His advisers—in particular, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jonathan Gruber, who was instrumental in conceiving the program’s structure—have made clear that they never believed cost control was part of the plan. “You can’t do cost control before coverage,” Gruber told The Washington Post in 2009. 

“The Romney people try to have it both ways,” says Tuerk. “They say we were wrong, that costs did go down. But also that they never intended to control costs.” Indeed, Romney’s response to the law’s failures has been to dodge and redirect blame. He has repeatedly argued that his support for the law, in particular its controversial insurance mandate, was aimed at creating a system built on “personal responsibility.” Yet the result of the law has been not a flood of people newly paying their own way but a dramatic increase in handouts. Eighty percent of the newly covered are receiving subsidies from the state.

Romney and his aides blame other failures on provisions inserted by the Democratic legislature and shoddy implementation by Patrick. Asked about the law in a December interview, a domestic policy advisor to the Romney campaign quickly brings up both factors, singling out the Patrick administration’s decision to calibrate the law’s minimum coverage requirement in a way that is both more generous and more expensive than Romney would have preferred. 

Political Failure

But the law was not merely a policy failure. It was also a political failure—at least in the sense that it did not sufficiently burnish the Romney brand. Quite the opposite. That’s because in 2010 President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, his signature achievement as well as the recent law most reviled by Republicans. 

The problem for Romney is that ObamaCare bears more than a passing resemblance to his Massachusetts plan: a massive Medicaid expansion, regulated private insurance exchanges paired with generous subsidies for the middle class, and a mandate that all Americans carry government-approved health coverage or pay a fine. ObamaCare, in other words, looks suspiciously like a federal clone of RomneyCare—not the best selling point for a presumptive Republican nominee in a restive electoral year. 

These days, Romney is strident in his opposition to ObamaCare, promising to repeal it (eventually) if elected. That position is tougher than the one he took in 2010, when he said, “I hope we’re ultimately able to eliminate some of the differences, and repeal the bad and keep the good.” Yet a national adoption of the Massachusetts plan may have been  what Romney had in mind when he signed his own signature legislation into law. During his first presidential primary campaign, Romney enthusiastically touted the plan’s national possibilities. “We have to have our citizens insured, and we’re not going to do that by tax exemptions, because the people that don’t have insurance aren’t paying taxes,” he said at an Iowa debate in August 2007. “What you have to do is what we did in Massachusetts. Is it perfect? No. But we say, let’s rely on personal responsibility, help people buy their own private insurance, get our citizens insured, not with a government takeover, not with new taxes needed, but instead with a free-market-based system that gets all of our citizens in the system. No more free rides. It works.”

In October of that year, Romney told the Republican Jewish Coalition: “I think we’ll be successful nationwide. My plan, by the way, allows every citizen in America to get health insurance.” Asked by CNN’s John King at the time whether RomneyCare was a good model for the nation, he responded with a big grin, “Well, I think so.” 

These days, he thinks not. In an October 2011 debate on CNN, Romney insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that “in the last campaign I was asked, ‘Is this something you would have the whole nation do?’ And I said no.”

As a consultant, Romney was able to give advice and move on to the next client. Even as a private equity investor, he rarely had to stick with a single project for a long period of time. So what if the solutions didn’t always work as billed? There was always another deal to be sold, another problem to be defined, another solution to be proposed. This may help explain why candidate Romney seems so much better at defining public policy problems than defending his own solutions.

Or maybe Romney is just miffed that he wasn’t consulted on Obama’s reform. To this day, his campaign continues to defend RomneyCare and suggest that it has applications beyond Massachusetts. A Romney policy advisor who declined to be quoted without campaign approval told me that, in general, Romney favors other states working off the Massachusetts plan, but tailoring it to their own situation. On the stump, when he is accused of blazing the trail for ObamaCare, Romney frequently replies, “If that’s the case, why didn’t he call me?”

Obama didn’t call Romney, but he did rely on substantial advice and insight from several of the same advisers who played key roles implementing the Massachusetts plan: John Kingsdale, who ran the state’s health insurance exchange starting in 2006, and economist Jon Gruber, who helped design the framework. Records obtained by MSNBC show that the consultants met with top Obama administration policy officials a dozen times while ObamaCare was being drawn up. And if Gruber is to be believed, the Obama plan is a virtual carbon copy of Romney’s. “[Romney] can try to draw distinctions and stuff, but he’s just lying,” Gruber told The Washington Post in November. “They’re the same fucking bill.” 

At this point, anyone hoping to pin Romney down on the relationship between RomneyCare and ObamaCare might as well try to nail an egg to the wall. In a lengthy November interview with Fox News host Bret Baier, a visibly uncomfortable Romney reiterated his recent claim that the law was good for Massachusetts but not for the nation. He told Baier that his “entire view” on the subject was laid out “clearly” in his book.

Reading No Apology is indeed clarifying, but probably not in the way that Romney intends. The first printing of the hardback summarized RomneyCare’s achievements and national implications with the line, “We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country.” When the book came out in paperback, that line was gone. 

(Flexible) Corporate Strategy for America

Still, a close reading of No Apology is essential for Romney watchers. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary politician’s book, designed to attack Obama’s policies, defend Romney’s record as governor and businessman, and serve as both a preview of his campaign and a layman’s guide to the policies he now favors. The writing is clear but scrubbed of personality. There are dull, soft-touch anecdotes about Romney’s personal life, which reveal nothing of importance (apparently he hates weeding). There are broad discussions of policy bookended with cheery platitudes about American greatness. 

But on closer examination, it becomes clear that the book is better understood as a sort of corporate strategy document. Except instead of focusing on a particular business, it offers a strategic vision for all of America. 

No Apology opens with a survey of the marketplace for global power. Romney describes the “four strategies to achieve world power.” There’s the Chinese strategy based on free enterprise and authoritarian rule, the Russian strategy based on energy authoritarianism, the Iranian strategy of violent jihad, and the American strategy, which prizes economic and political freedom. The presentation-ready, four-part schema all but conjures up a drop-down projection screen and laser pointer.

Romney outlines these countries’ operational strengths and weaknesses, their core missions and their potential as threats to the client’s front-runner status. Jihadism is a “strategy based on conquest and compulsion”; the Chinese are “an enormously practical and intelligent people,” but they lack the “rule of law and regulation that shapes free enterprise elsewhere”; Russia’s power is based on “energy and commodities” as well as “the strength of its science and technology sectors.” Later in the book, Romney widens his scope to examine industrial effectiveness in other countries, such as Japan, citing consultant’s reports on international differences in productivity.

Seen through Romney’s eyes, these are America’s competitors, each with its own business model and product line, organizational theories and distribution channels. He seems to conceive of his job as proposing a strategic vision that will help America compete and retain its position as global market leader. More often than not, the core of Romney’s pitch is about competent management and smarter implementation—an America that is more efficient, better optimized, more focused on its core business.

In No Apology, Romney allows that the United States is “not perfect” and that “America will remain the leading nation in the world only if we overcome our challenges.” But his strategic vision seems tailored to flatter the client. It is inspirational rather than radical, highlighting strengths rather than attacking weaknesses. 

So avowedly anti-radical is Romney’s blueprint that he advocates continuing programs he believes do not work. He concedes that Medicare will go bankrupt but promises to preserve and protect it. He insists that government is generally not the “source of new ideas” or “where innovation is commercially developed,” but also stresses that NASA and the military provide “frequent exceptions” to the rule. When American industry is challenged by foreign competition, Romney says he doesn’t “look for protectionist policies as an answer to the company’s problems,” yet he also avers that there may be “occasions when government properly should protect a domestic industry from foreign competition.” It is a consultant’s tap dance, hedged into strategic vision oblivion. 

Even the policies of which Romney is most critical are not policies he would undo. Instead, he would tweak and tailor them, refining their processes through savvier implementation and a surer bureaucratic hand. In his book, Romney blasts the Obama administration’s handling of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the financial rescue package passed under President George W. Bush in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown: “TARP as administered by [Treasury] Secretary Timothy Geithner was as poorly explained, poorly understood, poorly structured, and poorly implemented as any legislation in recent memory.” Yet he has nothing but praise for the original policy itself and the Bush administration leaders who passed it. “Secretary [Henry] Paulson’s TARP prevented a systemic collapse of the national financial system,” he writes. 

Romney’s problems with Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package are nearly identical. He says that after Bush’s $152 billion stimulus in 2008—about which Romney has no apparent complaints—it became clear that “another stimulus was called for.” 

“The stimulus that was passed in early 2009 will accelerate the timing of the start of the recovery,” he writes, though not as much as if the plan had been designed to maximize the incentives for job creation. Calls for a new stimulus package would be wrong; the right course would be to “fix the current stimulus” (the book was published before most of the stimulus money had been spent). 

Since the start of the primary campaign, Romney’s team has sought to give the impression that their candidate is more deeply opposed to Obama’s stimulus. In September, he released an apocalyptically moody ad pairing Obama’s soaring promises about the spending package with dark music and statistics showing the economy’s less-than-spectacular recovery. Later in the ad, a series of small-business owners appear one by one to dismiss the stimulus bill as worthless, while a spending ticker labeled “stimulus spending to date” ticks rapidly upward in the corner of the frame. In September, Romney told voters at a New Hampshire town hall event that he “never supported the president’s recovery act…no time, nowhere, no how.” 

The distinction between Romney’s support for properly managed stimulus and his criticism of the Obama plan as passed is murky enough to give even his advisers pause. Asked over the phone whether it would be fair to say that Romney supports stimulus spending as long as it’s the right kind of stimulus spending, Romney’s policy advisor starts to answer, then pauses for several seconds before responding hesitantly that he has the impression that’s true but will need to check further. 

Pick any political issue, and there’s a good chance Romney has taken more than one position on it. He has been both ardently pro-life and staunchly pro-choice. He has described immigration reform proposals that create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as both “reasonable” and an intolerable form of amnesty. He supported caps on campaign spending and new taxes designed to create a public funding source for elections, then denounced the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act for “hurt[ing] First Amendment Rights.” In 1994 he proudly noted his lack of alignment with the National Rifle Association while supporting waiting periods for gun purchases and bans on the sale of assault weapons; in 2006 he joined the NRA, praising its work in defense of the Second Amendment. 

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.