Carl Bernstein on Mitt Romney's Radicalism

Mitt, a moderate? As Carl Bernstein reports, he's more likely to enact the Tea Party's far-right agenda.

Emmanuel Dunand, AFP / Getty Images

With only a few days to go before the presidential election, it may be too easy for voters and the press to ignore the single most salient aspect of Mitt Romney's candidacy: his unwillingness to reject or confront in any significant way the truly radical nature of today's Republican Party in Washington, including its record, tactics, and philosophy.

As a senior Romney advisor confided to me earlier this week, even some of the candidate's campaign aides seem unsure of his relationship to the ideological orthodoxy of the Tea Party forces that now dominate the GOP in Washington, especially in the House and among Republican lobbyists. No matter how moderate his underlying instincts or inclinations might be (a huge open question in itself), some in his campaign also wonder how, as president, he could restrain the radical forces driving his party.

"My own feeling about Romney is he's a very moderate guy forced to run to the crazy-right," said this advisor, a self-described moderate who served under two Republican presidents in significant jobs. "But even I'm not sure what will happen if he is elected."

Certainly those helping to drive the Tea Party agenda in Washington believe that in Romney--and his choice of Paul Ryan (philosophically one of their own) as his running mate--they have an ideal instrument to implement their agenda. "All we have to do is replace Obama. ... We are not auditioning for fearless leader," declared Grover Norquist at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February. Norquist, who has promulgated a no-tax-increase pledge that has been signed by 238 Republicans in the House and 41 in the Senate, went on: "We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go.... We just need a president to sign this stuff....Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen.... His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared."

Romney might appear to be just the man for the job, especially with his fealty during the primaries to the Tea Party's fiscal and social-policy agenda. However, his Houdini-like attempts in the last two presidential debates to transform himself into a centrist (in tone, at least) have once again raised the question of what his real beliefs might be. Given the ideological intensity of the party he seeks to lead, the stakes in answering that question could not be higher.

Plainly put, today's Republican Party (and its Tea Party wing) represent the first bona fide radical political party to rise to dominance in Washington in nearly 100 years. With good reason, "radical" is a term to be used with great caution; more often than not it has been employed in American history by demagogues and ill-informed ideologues as a way of labeling opponents as "un-American." It conjures memories of old McCarthyite tactics and outrages, and the labeling of decent and patriotic citizens and movements as traitorous. Even in comparatively benign usage, the term radical is often thrown around recklessly to impugn beliefs for being out of touch or foreign to mainstream thinking.

Yet the fact remains that the Republican ideas now ascendant in Washington would dismantle and transform social and economic policies that have been the basis of prevailing political consensus since the days of Teddy Roosevelt's presidency, through his cousin Franklin's New Deal, through the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, and even from the Great Society through the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton decades. If that doesn't register as radicalism, I'm unsure what would.

Public policy in the twentieth century was about protecting and expanding the social compact, based on recognition that effective government at the federal level provides rules and services and safety measures that contribute to a better society. This is especially the case in realms where private enterprise and the states cannot or will not do what needs to be done for the common good: from insuring food and drug safety (begun in 1906) to progressive taxation (1913) to the creation of the National Park Service (1916) to regulation of banking and securities (1933) to compulsory Social Security retirement accounts (1935) to protecting the civil rights of all citizens (the 1960s) to environmental protection (1970) to guaranteed medical care for the elderly (1965).

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has applauded Republican/Tea Party efforts to privatize social security, eliminate environmental protection programs, restructure Medicare through voucher-like options, overturn Roe v. Wade, "self-deport" immigrants, and push for tax relief for the wealthiest citizens.

Like the Tea Party, Mitt Romney has railed in this election season against "government intrusion," particularly in regulating business and imposing higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, arguing (as was so often heard during the era of racial segregation) that states are better at providing for the needs of citizens, especially those who cannot adequately care for themselves and their families financially. His oft-repeated hands-off philosophy extends even to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is so busy this week providing crucial support to the states devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Back in June 2011, Romney notoriously answered a question about funding for FEMA by denouncing the federal debt as "immoral" and explaining that any "occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."

If there has been a single message in Romney's campaign--which has been purposely vague and strident, according to the campaign advisor quoted above--it has been that reliance on the private sector and the states will solve problems in essential matters that the federal government now regulates and maintains.

That position, like the campaign's bedrock opposition to abortion and gay rights, its unrelenting anti-immigration stance, regressive philosophy of taxation, and promotion of religious ideas as government policy, reflect the substantive part of the GOP's reigning radicalism. And then there are its tactical aspects: insinuating that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus illegitimately holds the office of president, changing voting rules to make it more difficult for poorer Americans to vote, flattering and encouraging (rather than shaming) those Americans who proudly reject the findings and methods of science, driving from office and purging such traditional conservatives and moderates as Bob Bennett of Utah, Bob Inglis of South Carolina, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Olympia Snowe of Maine. In all of these ways, today's Republican Party declares its commitment to political radicalism.

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There is no other word to describe the contemporary GOP's effort to break from our political culture's cumulative notion of normalcy and prevailing governmental philosophy. This extraordinary change in political direction is comparable in scale and intended effect to such transformational movements as the Radical Republicanism of the Reconstruction Era surrounding the Civil War and the Progressive movement of the early 20th century.

The previously quoted Romney campaign advisor (like a self-described "libertarian" former Republican governor with whom I discussed the same question recently) stresses the political necessity of courting and soothing the so-called "base" of today's Republican Party--actually, the ideological faction farthest right of the political spectrum on issues ranging from taxation to abortion--either to win the party's nomination for president or (as House Speaker John Boehner has discovered) to hold onto leadership positions in Congress.

"The Tea Party faction, or far right-faction, has been driving his candidacy, no question," said this life-long Republican, who insists on his belief that "Mitt Romney is not one of them." Rather, "the issue is how much can he move off that rhetoric [of Tea Party activists] and be moderate in governing, instead of responding to them. That's the basic question. And the answer to the question is unknown. My daughter said last night [two nights before the last debate], 'I can't vote for anybody who wants to get rid of Planned Parenthood. I can't trust someone who is willing to accept so much Tea Party bull.' That's the issue. How far right is he going to go if he is governing? And is he beholden to the Tea Party and extreme right? Or is he really a closet moderate who will govern from the center when elected? That's the issue about Mitt Romney."

As this adviser notes, the Boehner precedent serves as a powerful example of what happens when Republican leadership in today's Washington runs up against the Tea Party's agenda and policies promoted by its allies and enablers like the Koch Brothers (along with their political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, which generously funds Tea Party causes), and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on many issues. Time and again in the past four years, the House Speaker has capitulated to his Tea-Party-backed deputy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who covets the Speakership, and the ideologically rabid freshmen elected in 2010.

"In private, John Bohener and Romney are both smart, good, reasonably moderate guys; but if the troops behind you aren't following you," says the Romney advisor, "that's tough. I don't think this guy [Romney] is radical but you can't govern as a moderate if your entire team is essentially extreme conservatives or radicals. Yes, it means he'll say any f**king thing in this campaign, just like George W. Bush did: a Republican today has to act very conservative to get the nomination...."

Would Romney promote a moderate agenda as president? The evidence from the campaign is inconclusive but also far from encouraging. As I was told by this campaign insider, the candidate and his inner circle of advisors decided months ago, during the primaries, that in order to blur the problematic ideological issue, the campaign needed to avoid releasing position papers on important issues, or laying out in any detail in any forum how he would address specific policy matters as president, or putting any distance between the candidate and the Tea Party radicals.

Beginning in the primaries, Romney's promise to "repeal Obamacare on the first day I am president," was seen as key to a winning hand, though there has been recognition among his advisors that such a promise is probably impossible to deliver, given the reality of Senate rules and the increasing likelihood of continued Democratic control of the upper chamber of Congress. The more realistic scenario discussed by his aides would be for a President Romney to push for extended delay--perhaps of five or six years--of mandated insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act as part of an overall budget deal.

Even at the end of a presidential election campaign, we have no way to know what Mitt Romney really believes. The contradictory character of his pronouncements over the course of his political career is perhaps the most consistent aspect of his public record, and it is hardly predictive of the kind of leadership that would seriously challenge and override the extreme desires and policies of the Tea Party. Indeed, Romney has been at his eloquent best when embracing its positions and arguments. His surreptitiously recorded "47 percent" remarks were the perfect expression of radical Tea Party ideology. "One of his problems, if Romney is elected, is going be fending off the right wing from pushing this nutty stuff, like Clinton had to fend off nutty stuff from his far-left," says the campaign advisor. "Clinton was fundamentally a moderate [president]. I think Romney would be too."

Radicalism as such is hardly dishonorable or misguided in itself. Radical thought has inspired many of the great political and social reform movements in American history, from ending slavery to establishing the minimum wage. The American Revolution and Declaration of Independence, it has often been argued, were fueled by the most radical of all American political ideas.

Today's Republican Party, driven by the Tea Party movement, is equally radical. It represents as extreme a shift in political philosophy as any of the radical ideologies that have prevailed in our history. Even Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Jeb Bush, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush are all apostates from its ideological orthodoxy. In their place, the movement substitutes Eric Cantor, the Koch Brothers, Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann, Grover Norquist, and Glenn Beck.

One thing seems certain in this final phase of the 2012 presidential campaign: whatever Mitt Romney might "really" believe, his election would bring this radical belief system much closer to--not farther from--the power it needs to achieve its ends. From there it would be well positioned to do nothing less than overturn the political order that has prevailed in America for the better part of the past century.