Politics

07.31.12

Michael Tomasky on Wimpy Mitt Romney’s Missing Backbone

Romney’s defenders say his combative remarks in Israel prove he’s no wimp. What they really show is the same cowardly deference to the right that has inspired countless flip-flops.

What’s in a word? I guess a lot. All of us here at NewsBeast knew the word “wimp” would carry a charge and get people to pay attention. So to the extent that I have people’s attention, what I really would like them to focus on is the question of what makes this guy tick, and more specifically on his total lack of political backbone, because that seems to me a very serious potential shortcoming in someone who’s aiming to be president of the United States, and one that ought to be discussed more than we’re discussing it.

Let’s open with the fresh example of his speech in Israel this past weekend. The headlines called it a “tough” speech, and of course that’s how it sounded on its surface. But in fact it was nothing of the sort. It was a weak and highly calibrated position taken expressly to pander to right-wing Israelis, right-wing American Jews like Sheldon Adelson, neocons, and the conservative base. There wasn’t a syllable in there that would cause any thinking person in any of those four groups the remotest discomfort.

Why did he do that? Because, as I argue, it’s how he does everything. His “positions,” such as they are, are nothing more than very carefully designed anticipations of the bromides that the right wing wants to hear. In this particular case, as a side “benefit,” he potentially locks the United States into a dangerous position. Are we really comfortable with Bibi Netanyahu being an effective co-president of the United States on all matters relating to Israel policy? In promising that the United States would back an Israeli first strike against Iran, he’s given a foreign government an extraordinary amount of power over the course of action America pursues. Thus could the United States be drawn into a regional war, on the basis of another government’s actions, all because Romney uses occasions like these to pander more aggressively than perhaps any modern American politician. Is that strength?

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John Avlon and Michael Tomasky discuss Newsweek's cover story on Mitt Romney's wimpiness.

All of Romney’s ideological somersaults can be similarly described. Good policy has nothing to do with any of them. Passing muster with the right is the only thing. And no, everyone doesn’t do this. Soledad O’Brien said to me on CNN Monday morning: come on, if we had a dime for every time a politician flip-flopped, we could retire. Put that way, true enough. But actually, if you look at really successful politicians, they are surprisingly constant in their views, especially the views that truly define their character and identity.

It isn’t fine that Romney has changed his view on every issue. It’s pathetic. It suggests that he lives in fear of America’s right wing. That’s the real wimp factor.

Think of our last three presidents. As they climbed from the state or local level to the national stage, on what major issues did they change positions? The surprising but true answer is, not many. Bill Clinton was for free trade and welfare reform as governor and as presidential candidate. He re-tailored his clothing here and there, so to speak, to make himself more attractive to national big-money liberals, but he never did anything like go from being pro-life to pro-choice.

George W. Bush also was pretty consistent. Again, he altered his profile a bit to suit a national ascendancy, and so he came up with “compassionate conservatism.” Ditto Barack Obama. I can think of one issue—guns—on which he changed from his state senate days to his presidential run. Other than that, nothing but the run-of-the-mill little nips and tucks that are widely considered permissible.

It is true that once they became president, all three of these men changed positions on some pretty big issues once they saw that they couldn’t get certain things passed. Clinton caved in on gay rights. Bush, a free-trader going into his term, supported steel tariffs in his first year. Obama changed on closing Gitmo. These flip-flops are a function of trying to put a positive face on the negative political reality that they don’t have the votes or support to do what they intended.

But overall, all three were pretty impressively consistent in their key, image-defining positions from lower office right up to the White House. It’s a big part of the reason so many people on the other side hated them. They stood for something.

In fact, most politicians, at least most leading ones, are pretty consistent on their core positions. They change on discrete matters here and there, but we have never, and I do mean never, seen anyone change—completely and utterly transform—his view on abortion rights and a path to amnesty for illegal immigrants and taxation (he once refused to sign Grover Norquist’s pledge) and guns and, of course, health care. It’s completely mind-boggling to me how a person can get away with this, and it’s just chalked up to expediency. So the other Republican candidates were people you wouldn’t put in charge of a community college let alone the country but it’s just fine that Romney changed his view on every significant issue? It isn’t fine. It’s pathetic. It’s callow. It suggests that there is absolutely nothing to the man.

And that he lives in tremulous fear of America’s right wing and won’t breathe a word that he worries might upset them. That’s the real wimp factor. Is that how he’s going to behave if elected, functionally running domestic and foreign policy past Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes?

And in case you’re asking what Obama did in 2008 to confound his base, the answer is plenty enough. He always and insistently said he supported a major troop build-up in Afghanistan. I can guarantee you that that was a deeply unpopular position among rank-and-file liberals in 2008. And on a matter of war and peace. In addition he offended many liberal foreign-policy experts with his vow that he’d go after Osama bin Laden in Pakistan without telling the Pakistani government (I think we’re all OK today with his having taken that view). And he went against the teachers’ unions—probably the No. 1 supplier of phone banks for Democrats throughout the country—on charter schools. But Afghanistan was the main one, and it was a big departure from liberal belief and orthodoxy.

The current Obama campaign, for its own reasons, has decided at least for now not to press the backbone issue. I say it still needs to be discussed. Where will he disagree with the right? On taxes, spending, the Ryan budget, gay marriage, abortion, immigration, guns, Israel, and foreign policy generally, he has embraced positions that are about as far right as you can go while running as a national candidate. If it seemed at all sincere, it might be acceptable on those terms. At least a sincere right-winger has convictions about what he will and will not do. Someone like Romney, who is out to please masters and will say anything, will also probably do anything.