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Magazine / Cover Story: Romney’s leadership

Leading From Behind

Romney may become the nominee, but he’s still playing breathless catch-up with the views of GOP voters. As president, would he do the same?

A trusted leader: Ronald Reagan campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964.(AP Photo)

photo of Michael Hirsh
January 19, 2012

Mitt Romney looks like the kind of leader whom Hasbro might manufacture if the toy company were turning out presidents rather than GI Joes. Tall and well-coiffed with a marquee handsomeness and a sonorous voice, Romney is an action figure come to life. As the son of a presidential candidate and the possessor of two Harvard graduate degrees, he’s also got a pedigree and a résumé (as well as a tax return) to envy.

Most important, Romney has already proven his leadership chops. Whatever unpleasant things that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry might have said about Bain Capital, the fact remains: Romney is a data whiz who took a tiny start-up and turned it into a $65 billion giant that oversaw more than 100 corporate takeovers and actually did create jobs at major companies it nurtured—among them Staples, Sports Authority, and Domino’s. (Although it remains unclear whether Bain in the end destroyed more jobs than it created by taking over other businesses.) As Massachusetts governor, Romney deftly deployed both confrontation and consensus with the state’s Democrats, ultimately winning over his old 1994 Senate rival, uber-liberal Edward Kennedy (albeit in support of the “Romneycare” insurance program that he avoids discussing these days).

And now that the Republican nomination is his to lose, Romney is arguing that this is the year the man meets the moment: a historically prolonged economic crisis that only he, a business maestro, can fix. “This president wakes up every morning, looks out across America, and is proud to announce, ‘It could be worse,’ ” Romney said derisively of President Obama after winning the New Hampshire primary. “It could be worse? Is that what it means to be an American?” He may have been reading from a teleprompter, but Romney’s stinging words belied his reputation for tin-ear rhetoric; they seemed to echo the classic Ronald Reagan line that crippled Jimmy Carter in 1980: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”


But looking and sounding like a leader only takes you so far. What Romney doesn’t have yet—and may not get even if he wins the White House—is a GOP base that believes in him or is even certain quite who he is and what he stands for. Many conservatives suspect that Romney, who was born in one blue state (Michigan) and made his fortune in an even bluer one (Massachusetts), is just not one of them. They see him, somewhat accurately, as a numbers-driven pragmatist who leans right but has changed positions on too many issues to be considered a true believer. On RedState, a popular tea party website, activist Dan McLaughlin wrote an elegant, much-noted essay expressing worries that a Romney nomination would mean “we would all have to make so many compromises to defend him that at the end of the day we may not even recognize ourselves. Romney has, in a career in public office of just four years (plus about eight years’ worth of campaigning), changed his position on just about every major issue you can think of, and his signature accomplishment in office was to be wrong on the largest policy issue [health care] of this campaign.”

So if Romney wins the nomination and the presidency, he will have to spend as much time wooing the mainstream of his own party as he will winning over the Democrats. He’s not alone, of course: Virtually all prominent Republicans today have been forced to play a game of breathless catch-up with a base that keeps driving itself further off the known ideological map in each election, toward more extreme and simplistic conservatism. Every Republican who has spent a decade or more in national politics, including Romney and Newt Gingrich, has had to repudiate views that the GOP once found acceptable.

Hence, in recent years Romney has reversed himself on abortion, immigration, and climate change. He has been forced to thread an intellectual camel through the eye of a needle by defending his signal political achievement, “Romneycare,” while simultaneously attacking its national analogue, “Obamacare,” as un-American. Romney’s (and Gingrich’s) support for an individual mandate to buy insurance—originally the recommendation of Stuart Butler, a health expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation—is a good example of a position that was once mainstream in the GOP but has since become heresy. Today, it is another sign of too much government intrusion in American lives. Is it any wonder that Romney often sounds tongue-tied?

So the larger question isn’t whether Romney can win the presidency. It’s whether a candidate who is partially alienated from his base can truly lead the country, or whether he will end up being led—by the base he is constantly forced to mollify. Can he be like Ronald Reagan, who kept his party marching behind him despite perceptions, by his second term, of having made serious compromises? Or will he end up more like a George H.W. Bush, who fatally offended the conservative electorate (which always mistrusted him) by raising taxes and triggering a third-party rebellion that cost him reelection? To invoke a favorite GOP talking point against Obama, will a President Romney be forced to “lead from behind”?


It’s possible that the friction between Romney and his base will diminish in the coming months. In New Hampshire, he did surprisingly well across a broad spectrum of GOP voters, including tea partiers and evangelical Christians (the latter of whom he had failed to win over in Iowa). According to a CNN exit poll, Romney won 41 percent of tea party supporters and 31 percent of the evangelical vote, far more than any other candidate. True, New Hampshire is a northeastern—and therefore moderate—state that borders Massachusetts. But as his nomination gains an air of inevitability, Romney is successfully attracting tea party favorites around the country, such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, to his side.

He may also benefit from a confusion of aims in the GOP. Republican voters have found each of the “conservative” alternatives to Romney to be false saviors. (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, for example, are both consummate Washington insiders who failed to confront Big Government.) In recent weeks, fierce populist-style attacks on Bain Capital (mainly from Gingrich and Perry) have backfired, compelling conservatives to rally around Romney. Beyond that, tea party fervor may be waning: A recent Pew Research survey found that even in the most conservative GOP districts, voters were almost evenly divided between those who agreed and disagreed with the tea party.

Bush often seemed at odds with himself and his true instincts as he constantly struggled with his base.

Romney is still getting only one-third pluralities, as conservatives continue to search desperately for a Great Red (State) Hope. National polls conducted after Romney’s dominant performance in Iowa and New Hampshire have continued to show substantial (if somewhat softening) resistance to him as the nominee.

That will hardly be fatal in the general election; attacks from the right may even help him with the centrists and independents he’ll need to win. And Republicans have a way of uniting behind their nominee, as they did behind John McCain in 2008 despite a primary campaign during which some conservative talk-show hosts cast him as slipperier than Romney. (Rush Limbaugh, for instance, declared that McCain would “destroy the Republican Party” if nominated; he has been much more restrained about Romney.)

However you cut it, though, a Romney presidency is virtually assured of being divided against itself and possibly even at loggerheads with a Republican-dominated Congress, not unlike George H.W. Bush’s. On one hand, because most presidents do try to fulfill their campaign pledges (despite what the public often cynically thinks), we can expect to see a President Romney beginning his tenure on the right, pushing for immediate repeal of the 2010 health care law and extension of the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush. It is also likely, however, that the pragmatic Romney will reemerge as he confronts the bleak realities of deficit-cutting—for which some tax hikes are necessary—and finds himself once again at war with his base. (His economic advisers are notably sober-minded. See “The Romney Conundrum.”) Vin Weber, a Republican consultant who supports Romney, says that victory in the general election would also probably usher in a GOP Congress, and that would mean that his toughest negotiations might be with Speaker John Boehner and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell over some version of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan (which the Romney platform vaguely endorses) for major tax reform to increase revenue.


For all its apparent uniformity of views today, the postwar Republican Party has seen presidents across a political spectrum, with dramatically different approaches to leadership. There is, of course, the Reagan model—every current Republican’s favorite after Abraham Lincoln, anyway. A true movement conservative, Reagan first made his name in 1964, delivering a powerful TV speech in support of right-wing darling Barry Goldwater and against Big Government is. It is now known simply as “the speech.” He began positioning himself as a moral opponent of the Soviet “evil empire.” By the time Reagan began running for president in 1976, he was clearly leading, not following, the emerging conservative renaissance and its rightward-moving base on economic, social, and foreign-policy issues (despite some blemishes on his record, including a “therapeutic-abortion” bill he signed as California governor). He continued in that dominant position for most of his eight-year presidency. Some hard-liners deserted him (notably Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle in 1987, when Reagan began negotiating arms control with the Soviets), but it hardly affected the president’s standing, which has become shrouded in conservative myth.

Then there is Richard Nixon, who used his hard-line anticommunist credentials during the McCarthy era to win over his conservative base in the 1950s. He never completely lost them, at least until the Watergate scandal hit. As president, he initiated détente with China (inspiring the immortal epigram: “Only Nixon can go to China”) and became an apostate on the economy by taking the United States off the gold standard, imposing wage and price controls, and declaring, in 1971, “I am a Keynesian now.” But as David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University, points out, the thinness of Nixon’s party support was exposed by the end. “Once Watergate started to crack, conservatives bolted. The National Review was against him. Sen. James Buckley turned against him,” Greenberg says. “Those on the moderate Republican side, like [Connecticut Senator] Lowell Weicker, also deserted him. So it was only the rank-and-file, Bob Dole kind of Republicans who were with him.”

There is also Dwight Eisenhower, himself never much of a real conservative—who governed with help from the other party. As a revered World War II hero, Ike could afford to snub the conservatives (and did within weeks of his inauguration, choosing Truman-style containment of the Soviets rather than the hard-line “rollback” that conservatives wanted). But it was largely Eisenhower’s prestige that got him elected, bringing over the Democrats in many bipartisan votes.

And then there is Romney’s nightmare model, George H.W. Bush (despite a growing consensus that Bush 41 was a fairly effective president, especially compared with his son). Like Romney, the elder Bush looked great in profile and even better on paper—former CIA director, ambassador to China, World War II hero—but he was uncharismatic and often tongue-tied. Like Romney, H.W. often seemed at odds with himself and his true instincts as he constantly struggled with his base, muttering vaguely about how he wasn’t good at “the vision thing.” Although he was Reagan’s veep for eight years, Bush was never really a Reaganite, a fact evident since the 1980 campaign, when he revealed his true colors by mocking the tax-cutting fervor of supply-siders as “voodoo economics.” (Among those most suspicious of Bush was famed conservative economist Milton Friedman, who said that Reagan’s vice presidential selection was “the worst decision not only of his campaign but of his presidency.”)

When the economy turned bad and the deficit grew, as it has now, and Bush sought to raise taxes, he found that his already-disaffected base wanted nothing more to do with him. As a result, despite a popular and successful war, he had little Republican support by the 1992 election. Texas maverick Ross Perot jumped in, arguing for dramatic deficit reduction and playing to popular discontent by declaring that the North American Free Trade Agreement would cause a “giant sucking sound” of vanishing jobs. In the end, Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote, fully half of Bush’s 38 percent; Bill Clinton won with 43 percent. The political lesson was obvious to Republicans: If you stray too far from the base, you can look over your shoulder and find no one behind you. Says one longtime GOP strategist who didn’t want to be quoted criticizing other Republicans: “Maybe Romney will be smart enough to say, ‘I saw what happened to Bush 41, who lost the support of his base so completely that Ross Perot ran away with it in 1992.’ ”

Among those observing these lessons closely was George H.W. Bush’s eldest son, George W. Bush, who was then a key election aide to his father. Later on, as president, W. sought to keep his base happy, but by the end of the second term he, too, enraged and lost them. He had as much trouble cutting the size of government as his father and Reagan had; he actually increased it, adding not just a hugely expensive prescription-drug benefit program but trillions of dollars in expensive wars. This continued growth of government, even during Republican presidencies, is partly what triggered the tea party rebellion.

The animating ideology of that rebellion is that less government will cure all. As Bruce Bartlett, one of the original Reagan supply-siders-turned-apostate, has put it: Supply-side economics has been “distorted into something that is, frankly, nuts—the ideas that there is no economic problem that cannot be cured with more and bigger tax cuts, that all tax cuts are equally beneficial, and that all tax cuts raise revenue.”

This is the party consensus that President Romney would inherit.


That’s why Romney could have an even tougher time leading than all his GOP presidential predecessors. Republican voters cut both Reagan and Bush 43 a lot of slack because they faced titanic foreign-policy challenges. In Reagan’s case, his stand against the Soviets (and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc by the end of his presidency) won him forgiveness for his failures to rein in government; in Bush’s case, 9/11 and the war on terrorism prompted many conservatives to muzzle themselves even as the deficit exploded. Unless there is another war (Iran?), Romney will not have a crisis around which to unite the country except for the economic one. And here, most mainstream economists say that government will have to do more, not less—whether in stimulus, education, unemployment, or job training—and that would be sure to displease the base.

Perhaps worse, Romney must preside over an unprecedented polarization of politics that is still deepening. During the Nixon presidency, by contrast, “the climate was so much more liberal,” says Greenberg, author of Nixon’s Shadow. “Conservatives were much more grateful for whatever they could get. Now they feel more in charge than they did then. They feel like they have a lot of power, and they do. They’re less willing to just support the president.”

The Right is also far less divided today. As recently as the Reagan era, there was a vibrant ideological debate within the GOP over government and taxes. Reagan, described by his budget director, David Stockman, as too “kind” and “gentle” to launch a true “revolution” against Big Government, could not himself bear to cut major programs even as enacted supply-side tax cuts. The party later was engulfed in bitter infighting between moderates and supply-siders. Leading members of the Reagan administration—including Stockman, Richard Darman, and then-Chief of Staff Jim Baker—and the GOP Senate leadership argued in favor of tax increases to ease the deficit. That dialectic no longer exists. Today, the GOP leaders and the base embrace a reflexive opposition to anything that might increase the size of government or increase taxes.

Hence, the most worrisome presidential model for Romney is one that the Obama political team should already be readying as a sound bite: Herbert Hoover. “The last time we had a very wealthy, successful Big Business sort of guy in the White House was Hoover,” says presidential historian Robert Dallek. “That’s not going to be a very flattering comparison. Hoover was a millionaire, too—an engineer entrepreneur. But he was very rigid about his economic principles.” He had been a much-admired can-do Commerce secretary, but Hoover came to be known as one of America’s worst presidents because he was perceived as a leader who in the Great Depression did little more than reflexively embrace his party’s laissez-faire view of markets at a critical moment when new thinking was desperately needed. It’s no accident that the author of this new thinking, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, defied the conventional wisdom of both political parties and is today widely seen as the nation’s greatest modern president.

Romney the pragmatist may be more inclined toward FDR’s flexibility than Hoover’s rigidity. “You can debate his ideology,” Weber says. “What you can’t debate is, this is a guy who likes to solve problems.” Romney may be betting that, if he becomes president, all will be forgiven if he fixes the economy, no matter how many heresies he commits. Oddly enough, his beau ideal as president may be a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who spurned his own progressive ideals and his liberal base and placed a big bet on appeasing the bond market as he took office in the backwash of a recession in 1993. Clinton dropped his promised middle-class tax cuts and focused on the deficit, remarking sardonically to his aides: “Roosevelt was trying to help people. Here we help the bond market.” Clinton’s only hope was that his advisers were correct on the economy, and if they were, that he could recover. Rates dropped and the economy boomed, vindicating Clinton’s centrism.

But Romney is kidding himself if he thinks that a GOP base united around certain ideological convictions, including the notion that new taxes are taboo, will give him much latitude to be pragmatic about the nation’s knottiest economic problems. Or that he can take a very different approach than Obama, who has tried to negotiate a blend of spending cuts and revenue hikes with Boehner and McConnell. If Romney is serious about addressing the deficit, some degree of ideological heresy will be necessary, no matter what he has said on the campaign trail. And, in general, business leaders rarely do as well as they expect at politics. They are constrained by the separation of powers and forced to ride the tiger of public opinion; they must persuade, cajole, and arm-twist to get their way, and while Romney is savvy with a balance sheet, there are serious doubts about his salesmanship skills. As Truman once said about his presidential successor, Eisenhower: “He’ll sit there all day saying, ‘Do this, do that,’ and nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army.” Of course, the most recent “CEO presidency,” George W. Bush’s, ended up in a ditch.

Perhaps Romney’s biggest hope is that the conservative base may not be as congealed or certain about its views on many issues as people think—and that he can fill in the blanks. Despite the tea party movement, the GOP has not settled on a common agenda beyond a reductive impulse to roll back government. Polls consistently show that Republicans are mainly interested in cutting other people’s entitlements, not their own. On foreign policy, the tensions between the neocon camp (best manifested by Rick Santorum), the traditionalists (such as Romney and Jon Huntsman), and the old GOP libertarian-isolationist view (Ron Paul) remain completely unresolved. Hence, the utterly confused response of the various presidential candidates to Obama’s Libya intervention.

Romney also may lucky in his adversaries. It’s not just that the GOP apparently has no other champion. The Democrats are confused as well. Not only is Obama broadly unpopular—only some 45 percent of the public now like the job he’s doing—his own base is no longer very enthusiastic about him either. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald was one of several progressive pundits to question whether liberals should support Ron Paul, since Obama “has done heinous things with the power he has been vested,” including cuddling up to Wall Street and waging covert wars with both Islamist extremists and Iran.

Still, all these doubts about Romney’s true character and views help explain why many conservatives refuse to give up the fight for an alternative. Some say that Romney, because of his dubious credentials, will have a hard time distinguishing himself from Obama—and thus persuading voters they need to change horses. Already the president is seeking to preempt Romney’s pledge to slash government; on January 13, Obama announced plans to consolidate several commerce and trade agencies, cutting $3 billion and more than 1,000 jobs over 10 years. “As The Wall Street Journal said, Romney’s economics program cedes the economic argument to Obama,” says Tony Dolan, Reagan’s former chief speechwriter and a longtime conservative activist who has been backing Newt Gingrich. Dolan says that the only way a Republican can win the White House is if he distinguishes himself completely from the president with a conservative set of ideas. “There are two kinds of campaigns. The one that believes in ideas, and the campaign with a candidate who thinks that politics is about maneuvers. The Reagan tradition is about standing up for certain ideas and speaking the truth, and that is what consistently wins.”

Mitt Romney is clearly about more than mere maneuvers. But his many shifting positions, as well as the doubts in his own party about whether he stands for the right ideas, raise serious questions about whose agenda would really dominate in a Romney presidency—and therefore how effective a leader he can be. Those questions in turn could blunt the effectiveness of Romney’s challenge to Obama over the next 10 months. 

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