By Luke Brinker
In an otherwise thoughtful column on the decline of Republican moderation, Nicholas Kristof expresses wishful thinking that likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney can reverse the trend. “[I]f Romney somehow manages to make the Republican Party safe for moderates again, that’ll be a triumph for his party — and for the country,” Kristof writes.
Oy. This isn’t the first time Kristof has flirted with the “moderate Mitt” theory — the notion that in his heart, Romney remains the centrist Republican he was in Massachusetts and is only spouting right-wing boilerplate to win the nomination. Once elected, the theory goes, Romney will govern as a pragmatic moderate.
The overarching problem with Kristof’s argument is that it rests upon Kristof’s conceit that he knows what Romney really believes. Anyone familiar with his record, however, would have a hard time discerning any clear core convictions, other than that Mitt Romney should be in elected office. Romney ran for office in Massachusetts as a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, eco-conscious, gun control-supporting “progressive,” but before running for the Senate in 1994, Romney evinced signs of social conservatism. It’s pointless to waste time trying to get inside Romney’s head, but there’s a case to be made that Romney has always been far more conservative than his father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, who opposed the Vietnam war even as Mitt supported it. Now that he’s running to be the national leader of a conservative party, Romney may feel liberated to be his true, conservative self.
Moreover, research by political scientist Jonathan Bernstein finds that presidents tend to keep their campaign promises. Romney is running as a tax-cutting, anti-abortion, pro-Ryan budget, and anti-climate science conservative, so there’s every reason to suspect that he’ll govern as one. With a narrow five to four pro-choice majority on the Supreme Court, it’s quite possible that whomever wins in November will appoint a justice to replace the aging swing-voting Justice Anthony Kennedy and either maintain or reverse the high court’s consensus on Roe v. Wade. Does anyone seriously believe that a President Romney, beholden to the conservative GOP, will appoint a pro-choice moderate? Likewise, does anyone take seriously the notion that after coming under relentless assault for shameless shape-shifting, a President Romney would govern contrary to how he campaigned?
I suspect that a great deal of Romney’s persistent reputation as a “moderate” has as much to do with his generally moderate temperament as it does with his record in Massachusetts. But a moderate disposition does not a moderate politician make. Another reason media figures like Kristof downplay Romney’s red-meat rhetoric may be socialization. Romney is a product of elite American institutions – Harvard Business, Harvard Law, the Boston Consulting Group, and Bain Capital. His milieu is similar to that of many of the nation’s top political commentators, including Rhodes Scholar Kristof. Many pundits are probably saying to themselves that with such a respectable pedigree, surely Romney is not the kind of Neanderthal who would overturn abortion rights, ignore climate science, and pursue policies even further to the right than those of former President George W. Bush. But they discount Romney’s conservatism at their peril.