Mitt Romney, Servant of the Radical Right?


The liberal line about Mitt Romney these days is that he is a closet radical who has managed to convince people that he's actually a mushy moderate.

At The American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie makes the best possible version of this case: that although Mitt Romney may not be a true-believing radical at his core, he is nonetheless functionally an extreme conservative — not because of some preexisting ideological or policy commitments, but because he is, as the piece's title says, "a servant of the right." Romney, the logic goes, allows his outlook to be shaped by those around him, and will be a conservative radical because he'll be serving conservative radicals.

The problem with this argument is that it requires the existence of a dedicated class of conservative radicals in Congress. And while Republicans on Capitol Hill are certainly more conservative than Bouie would like, I'm not sure they're nearly as radical as he suggests in his piece.

The modern Republican party, Bouie writes, aims to "gut government" and "revive the age of Calvin Coolidge," decimating the welfare state in the process:  

When Romney and Obama cast this election as a choice between two competing visions, they're right. The 2012 campaign isn't a case of overblown rhetoric and minor differences; the winner of this battle will either protect the future American welfare state or set it on a path to destruction.

But today's welfare state owes no small debt to Republican governance and policy ideas: ObamaCare was based closely on an idea developed by conservative think tankers and first passed at the state level by Mitt Romney. Medicare's prescription drug benefit — the biggest single federal health benefit expansion since the program began — was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Republican President. The Medicare hospital and physician payment controls that liberal health wonks now spend so much time trying to tweak were passed and implemented under GOP administrations. 

Nor is there much evidence that Republicans now aim to set the existing welfare state on a "path to destruction." This year's GOP House budget plan made almost no changes to Social Security. Despite the GOP's objections to the president's health law, reports this week suggest that Republicans legislators are, at minimum, deeply squeamish about repealing many of its policy goodies.

Yes, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's proposed Medicare overhaul would slowly transition the program to a premium support system, but that's an idea originally developed by Henry Aaron, a prominent liberal health wonk. And while it's true that Aaron no longer supports converting Medicare to premium support (at least for now), former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who for years was one of Congress' most outspoken advocates of universal coverage, have both expressed support for versions of Ryan's plan. Supporting Ryan's Medicare overhaul, in other words, does not require one to be a fire breathing anti-entitlement radical.

As for gutting government, Republican legislators may talk a big game about federal spending, but that doesn't mean they vote accordingly. Even amongst the most recent class of House freshmen — the supposed "Tea Party radicals" swept into office in 2010 — seemingly obvious votes against spending cuts, program closures, and corporate welfare boondoggles are far from sure things. As Cato's Ted DeHaven notes, last week gave House members three opportunities to vote against federal spending. Yet only 26 and 87 House GOP freshman actually voted against spending cuts in all three cases. The freshman radicals are, for all practical purposes, no different from their conventional, free-spending Republican elders. As The Washington Post reported on Tuesday, GOP "freshmen voted with the fiscally conservative point of view an average of 71 percent of the time — only slightly higher than other incumbent Republicans, who toed the line 69 percent of the time." When it comes to the practical reality of federal spending, the GOP hasn't changed all that much. 

Like Bouie, I don't believe that Romney is someone with strong personal ideological convictions. As I argued in my March cover story on the former Massachusetts governor , Romney is best viewed as a sort of consultant candidate: Rather than lead on policies and issues, he reflects a slicker version his clients back to themselves. But I see little sustained evidence that the Republican party is quite as radical as Bouie seems to think.

What's more, I suspect that as the campaign continues, Romney will soften his positions even further, subtly shifting toward the center. During the primary, the GOP base was his only client, and he courted them by playing to their biases. But the party faithful won't always dominate Romney's campaign. As the general election approaches, Romney's potential client base will expand and moderate. And if history is any indication, so will Romney's rhetoric and policy positions.