David Frum

01.26.12

Romney: A Skeptic, Not a Liar

Mitt Romney is not a liar, but he is emotionally distant from the Republican base.

In a column in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens lamented that the Republican Party deserved to lose the 2012 election. A special target of Stephens' wrath was Mitt Romney, whom Stephens dismissed as a hollow man without conviction.

I wrote this in reply:

I think it's probably true that Mitt Romney is concealing a private doubt, and it is this: Mitt Romney simply does not believe the things that must be said to be a competitive candidate for the Republican nomination. He has zero interest in being a Jon Huntsman-style martyr, so he dutifully repeats them, but he cannot bring himself to repeat them with the conviction that a Republican audience (and for that matter Stephens' higher-ups at the Journal itself) expect and demand.

This led Stephens' Journal colleague James Taranto to say in a Tweet:

@davidfrum thinks Romney is a liar and admires him for it.

Taranto has misconstrued what I was saying, so let me restate in a way that I hope is more precise:

Mitt Romney cares a great deal about speaking accurately and truthfully. He uses statistics carefully in his speeches and debates, unlike former leading rival Rick Perry.

He eschews the audacious somersaulting of reality we often hear from current rival Newt Gingrich, whose most spectacular moment in the recent Charleston debate turns out to have been based on a flat lie:

“Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren’t interested because they would like to attack any Republican.”

CNN's John King reported yesterday that there was no offer from the Gingrich camp of people who could disprove Marianne Gingrich's statement, only the offer of an appearance by Gingrich's two daughters by his first marriage.

Similarly, in the department of campaign promises, Romney has eschewed the fanciful and unachievable economic "plans" offered up by his rivals: a 20% flat tax! No, 15%! Vote for me, and I'll deliver 5% growth a year for the next 5 years! Make it over 10!

Romney's economic program has been derided as too long and too complex, but its elements could be implemented and its numbers are not pulled out of a hat. So long as we are in the world of facts and specifics, Romney has shown himself scrupulous not to overstate or misrepresent. Even where he has changed his mind, on abortion for example, you'll see no equivalent of the glaring disregard for the factual record of a Ron Paul, with his facially laughable claim to have had nothing to do with the racist newsletters published under his name, no knowledge of their authorship, and to have utterly abhorred their message even as he cashed the checks the newsletters yielded.

But elections turn on more than facts, promises, and programs—especially this current campaign for the Republican nomination for president. More perhaps than most, this election turns on shared feelings. Many Republican primary voters have been sold a narrative or image of the Obama presidency in which a radical socialist alien president is seeking to wreck and overturn the American way of life and the free enterprise system. That narrative is nuts, but unless you signal that you share the nuttiness, your campaign goes the way of Jon Huntsman's.

Romney, having no interest in martyrdom, has sent his share of such signals. And it is those signals that I doubt he believes. Whatever else Mitt Romney may be, he's certainly no fool. So when he says something foolish, I assume there must be a part of his brain that knows better. What choice does he have? As he wrote to his father during his father's presidential run 45 years ago: "The rest of our [electoral] system I know pretty well—only one thing I can't understand: how can the American public like such muttonheads?" (Source: The Real Romney)

Appropriately wary of the public's fondness for muttonheads, Romney takes appropriate precautions.

I like it best when Romney sticks to the facts and avoids impugning the president's motives. But I'm not the only voter in these primaries. Many Republicans voters are terrified by unfounded fears and are swayed by false information. The Romney campaign wooed those voters by deferring to some of their emotions. It's hard to see what other choice the campaign might have. Yet candidate Romney cannot always maintain the level of deference required. No fool and no hater, he sometimes shows his distance from the emotions of the Republican base. I think that distance is to his credit—and way more creditable than for example the racial dog-whistling on which Newt Gingrich has built his campaign.

But what I call emotional distance from the feelings of the Republican base, James Taranto calls "lying." That's a hard word and a strong accusation. 

It's a word and an accusation that come with especially ill grace from the writers of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

I discussed the Wall Street Journal's uneasy relationship with facts in a piece I wrote for my old website, FrumForum, critiquing a Journal editorial about the debt crisis:

One of the many traps and impediments facing a Journal editorialist writing about debt is that up until 2009, the US debt burden rose most under the two presidents the Journal most ardently supported: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The debt burden declined most under the presidents the Journal most despises—Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

wsj-chart-1

How to deal with this troubling problem? It must have taken some searching, but the Journal managed to find a chart vaguely relating to debt that went up under Clinton and stayed flat under Bush. They chose chart 11.1 from the historical tables of the Offices of Management and Budget. (That’s more information by the way than the Journal included—I guess they wanted to enhance the treasure-hunting fun of those curious to check their work.)

wsj-chart-2

You can see the original of the chart here: “Summary Comparison of Outlays for Payments to Individuals, 1940-2016, as percentage of Total Outlays.”

What’s so great about this chart is that it excludes two of the biggest federal spending programs: Medicare Part B and Medicaid, both of whose costs rose faster in the Bush 2000s than in the Clinton 1990s. Isn’t that ingenious? Would you ever have thought of doing that? Again—that’s why you would wash out. This is not a job for just anyone.

Let's put it this way: If the journalists of the Journal's editorial page showed only as much respect for the facts as the politician Mitt Romney, that paper would greatly upgrade its current editorial standards.