Now that his five-state primary victory has all but assured Mitt Romney the Republican presidential nomination, the conservative commentariat will likely jump on the Romney bandwagon and try to steer it to the White House. Romney might have his flaws, it'll argue, but he's the lesser evil compared to Barack Obama, whose labor-friendly, green-obsessed, spendthrift, soak-the-rich ways will finish off what's left of the economy.
Perhaps. But here are five reasons why Republicans—and the country—might be better off if Romney loses.
One: Smart folks are betting that the Supreme Court will outlaw the individual mandate but leave the rest of ObamaCare to Congress. Hence, one conservative argument for a Romney victory is that, combined with a GOP-controlled Congress, it'll offer the last hope for repealing the law. But repeal is not an end in itself. The question is, can the GOP replace ObamaCare with sensible market-based reforms?
Republicans are as loath as Democrats to eliminate the other poison pill in ObamaCare: forcing insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, something that a majority of Americans support. Indeed, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has declared that, on this issue, "Republicans share some of the same goals as Democrats." But the odds of Romney defying the party leadership and embracing a politically unpopular position are roughly the same as Hamas embracing Israel. Ronald Reagan might have. But Romney?
The most likely scenario is that President Romney and congressional Republicans will end up fighting with Democrats to wangle bigger subsidies for insurance companies to help them fulfill the mandate—not the mandate itself. A Republican administration will thus become complicit in turning insurance companies into regulated public utilities receiving government money and protection in exchange for providing a government-mandated service. This is halfway to socialized medicine—something conservatives are allegedly against, remember?
Two: Commentators like Michael Gerson maintain that precisely because Romney has been a serial flipper previously, he'll be less likely to flop now on conservative issues. But Romney's desperation to establish his street cred with the base is not a blessing when it comes to government spending.
He's struck a distressingly bellicose tone on national defense, proclaiming that he wants a "military so powerful that no one would ever think of challenging it"—never mind that America already spends more on defense than the next 15 nations combined. To demonstrate his resolve, he has proposed to lock the Pentagon's annual budget at a minimum of 4 percent of the GDP, regardless of the external threat environment. This works out to $2.5 trillion in additional spending over a decade, surpassing even Obamacare's real price tag by about a trillion dollars.
But if he doesn't "flop" on this promise, there's no way he'll be able to bargain entitlement spending cuts with Democrats—and he might well end up as big a spender as George W. Bush and Obama.
Three: Both the left and the right, according to the polls, are troubled by the fact that America is becoming a land of crony capitalism. No doubt that's why Romney has been mouthing clumsy platitudes about how "you've got to stop the spread of crony capitalism" and striking a brave pose against the auto bailout.
But, tellingly, the financial bailout was just fine with him. That's no coincidence. He is, after all, the ultimate Wall Street insider, receiving millions of dollars in subsidies and government handouts for companies he was trying to rescue as CEO of Bain Capital. He might not be running with the intention of helping his corporate pals, but it is inevitable that they'll have his ear. Their interests and needs are far more comprehensible to him than, say, those of consumers. Witness his sabre-rattling against Chinese currency manipulation that would put the most ardent mercantalist to shame. A devalued yuan is effectively a gift from Chinese taxpayers to American consumers who benefit from cheap Chinese imports. But it no doubt hurts some American businesses and for Romney what's good for business is good for the country. Someone less naturally suited to shutting the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington is hardly imaginable.
Four: If Romney wins this election, odds are he'll automatically be the Republican nominee in 2016. Regardless of whether he wins then, this will effectively kill all prospects for putting a more serious Republican reformer (such as Wisconsin's Rep. Paul Ryan) in the White House until 2020 or 2024. It might be far better to swallow hard and accept another Obama term to keep the path clear for a Republican more likely to deal with our fiscal and political dysfunction, rather than elect President Romney and block that possibility for another generation.
Five: The GOP is in a state of intellectual flux, illustrated perfectly by the ideological heterodoxy of its presidential field. Various strains representing different interests are fighting for the soul of the GOP: The neocons are duking it out with anti-war Paulistas. Social moderates are trying to wrest some space from pro-life religious conservatives. Deficits and debt worry everyone, but there is no consensus on entitlement reform. The GOP allegedly stands for the free market—but it has yet to figure out whether Bush's financial bailout was right or wrong.
A visionless, rudderless, gaffe-prone presidency is the last thing that Republicans need right now. Having to defend Romney's slips—he's insulted 7-Eleven cookies, said he enjoys firing people, and announced he is not concerned about the very poor, and that's just this year—will further contort the party's soul. Four years of Romneyisms, all of which smack of elitism, will cement the image of the GOP as the out-of-touch party of the rich.
Better that the GOP remain in the political wilderness for another four years (and, hopefully, find itself) than have a Romney presidency prolong its intellectual and moral confusion.
Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia is a columnist for The Daily, where this column originally appeared.