On Monday, David Brooks made the case for Mitt Romney. The short version? Sure, he’s more of a technocratic administrator—sorry, an “effective executive”—than a combative ideological visionary, but maybe that’s just what the White House needs. Brooks all but admits that Romney lacks deep personal ideological commitments to guide him, but doesn’t find that too worrying. After all, he says, the party doesn’t need vision from a president. It just needs execution:
This is not a party riven by big ideological differences. This is not Reagan versus Rockefeller. Whoever wins the nomination will be leading a party with a cohesive ideology and a common set of priorities: reform taxes, replace Obamacare, cut spending and reform entitlements. The next president won’t have to come up with a vision, just execute the things almost all Republicans agree upon.
Perhaps I’ve missed a round or two of think tank white papers and campaign-trail economic proposals, but as far as I can tell, a unifying policy agenda is exactly what Republicans don’t have.
Yes, as Brooks points out, there are some broad areas of agreement. But a murky commitment to tax reform, entitlement reform, and spending control do not by themselves constitute a vision. If supporting some unspecified changes in those areas was all that was necessary to lead the GOP, then many Democrats, including President Obama, who at least in theory supports deficit reduction, changes to the tax code, and a variety of technocratic policies intended to restrain the growth of Medicare spending, would qualify.
Having a vision doesn't require supporting a particular piece of legislation. But it does mean pointing in the direction of some specific reform. Merely pointing out that we need to move forward in some policy area is not sufficient; a candidate also needs to do something to indicate where we need to go.
Supporting tax reform, for example, could simply mean lowering corporate tax rates (as Romney has proposed). It could mean attacking corporate tax loopholes and making individual tax rates more progressive. It could mean simplifying the system, lowering marginal rates, and implementing a VAT. It could mean pressing for a flat tax, a national sales tax, or a zillion other policy permutations. Tax reform isn't a vision; a loophole-free flat tax is.
The thing is, it’s not just Romney who doesn’t appear to have a vision. It’s most of the Republican party. Most of the GOP agrees that major reforms are necessary. But there isn’t much agreement about what kind of reform. And Romney, the longtime consultant, isn’t offering a vision so much as reflecting their own muddled thinking back to them in a slightly slicker package.
This is even true to some extent with what is typically thought of as the party's clearest and most unifying agenda item, ObamaCare. Yes, the vast majority of GOP voters would like to see it repealed and probably replaced. But the question is: with what? And how would Medicare fit into the equation? I have no idea how Romney would replace last year’s health care overhaul, and I don’t think he does either. Figuring this out is not simply a matter of execution. It's a matter of vision. And on health policy, Romney doesn’t have one.
Since the start of the campaign, he's committed to letting states enact their own version of ObamaCare, as he infamously did in Massachusetts; to possibly supporting some vague, unspecified variation on Rep. Paul Ryan’s premium support overhaul; and to attacking the Medicare payment reductions included in ObamaCare while siding with unhappy seniors who want the government not to touch Medicare at all. This is totally incoherent.
These are complex policy decisions driven as much by principle as by managerial competence. Romney appears to possess only one of those things.