Turn on the television in any swing state these days and you’re likely to see Mitt Romney smiling wistfully and saying this:
“Republicans and Democrats both love America. But we need to have leadership — leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done.”
In the background, there’s a parade of carefully chosen faces—a young woman, a Hispanic father, a union worker wearing a hard-hat—all demographics he is losing by large margins, shown to create the illusion of a broad coalition.
The ad is called “Bringing America Together”–perhaps unintentionally echoing a Nixon campaign theme from 1968–and it is the core of Team Romney’s closing argument.
This is soothing and smart politics aimed squarely at swing voters. But it isn’t even skin-deep. Other than the ads, there is little reason to think that Moderate Mitt is anything but the latest political ploy from a chameleon with no consistent core beyond his own ambition.
Mitt Romney is a highly moral man who happens to be amoral when it comes to politics— a salesman willing to make whatever pitch will sell at that moment. And in these closing days he is trying to be steady and centrist. So he spent the third debate suddenly embracing Obama foreign polices he had been relentlessly attacking on the campaign trail for 18 months.
Now, he is running as the candidate of change, a leader who can usher in a new era of bipartisanship.
It is tempting to believe, especially because that is what so many swing voters want to see in Washington. But consider the facts with a sense of perspective.
This is a candidate who said he would reject a deal to reduce the federal deficit and debt with ten dollars in spending cuts for every one dollar in tax revenue. If he were to become president, this prescription would make bipartisan progress on the deficit impossible.
This is a candidate who has pledged to entirely defund Planned Parenthood and appoint Supreme Court judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade —moves that would reignite the culture wars and drive a deep wedge between women and the GOP, as well as between the two parties.
This is a candidate who criticizes President Obama for not passing comprehensive immigration reform—but he vocally opposed comprehensive immigration reform when it was proposed by fellow Republicans like President Bush and John McCain.
Because Romney’s campaign hasn’t produced substantive bipartisan policy proposals, his supporters reach for his time as governor of Massachusetts as evidence of his bipartisan instincts. But he worked with a Democratic-dominated legislature less effectively than his three Republican predecessors, and his core substantive achievement—an individual-mandate healthcare plan—he can’t even talk about because he has promised to end the federal version of it passed by President Obama on “day one” if he becomes president. Without an alternative plan to cover pre-existing conditions, millions of people in our aging population will be left more vulnerable and facing more out-of-pocket health-care expenses. This might satisfy the ideological base but it will not help build bipartisan support.
I have many Republican friends who say that if Mitt Romney is elected president that he will not implement the more divisive play-to-the-base policies he has backed in this campaign. This is a hopeful attempt to turn his lack of core convictions into an asset—arguing that he will be moderate because he will simply follow the polls and pursue the path of least resistance. So his commitment to pursue a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage is dismissed as fundamentally unserious—a harmless pander to the religious right—rather than a policy he is likely to actually pursue. This is a high-stakes assumption.
A far more likely scenario is that a President Romney would mouth centrist rhetoric post-election to try and unite a deeply divided nation but then find himself working with a very conservative House majority who intend who keep his feet to the fire on all the promises he made to them in the primaries when he was running as a “severe conservative.”
In turn, Democrats in a Romney era are likely to take their strategic cue from the way Republicans have behaved in the Obama era—pursuing a policy of total obstruction and personal demonization. Harry Reid will announce, as Mitch McConnell did, that his party’s number one goal will be to see Romney be a one-term president. And if Democrats lose their majority in the senate, they will deploy the filibuster at least as often as Republicans have used it over the past four years. The result: more rancor and gridlock.
All this would be terrible for the country, but it is the kind of politics we have incubated – every action creates an equal and opposite reaction.
There is an additional factor to consider: conservatives’ attempts to present President Obama as a far-left liberal—let alone a radical leftist—are themselves a myth. The political scientists at the non-partisan site VoteView has analyzed his record outside the vicious spin cycle and concluded that President Obama is the most moderate Democratic president since the end of World War II” The political divisions that persist in our nation are more the result of hate-fueled hyper-partisan projection than President Obama’s actual policies. In a more sane time, the fact that a Democratic president advanced a health care idea proposed by the Heritage Foundation and implemented by a Republican Governor named Romney would have been seen as triangulation. But with President Obama it is reflexively viewed as socialist instead of centrist. This says more about Obama’s overheated opponents than his presidency.
Romney has been far more focused than Obama on appealing to independent and centrist swing voters in the final stretch of this election. But Mitt Romney is not a principled centrist; he is a pragmatic opportunist – more like Charlie Crist than Teddy Roosevelt or Tony Blair.
And the idea that he will lead us into a new era of bipartisanship is a misty wish based on little more than an etch-a-sketch strategy—a retooled stump speech and an appealing but essentially empty new ad—strategically deployed in the final stretch of a divisive presidential campaign.