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A Little Late for a Pivot, Isn’t It?

If you were among the 68 million Americans who watched Wednesday’s debate, you probably heard Mitt Romney talk like a moderate. And if you’d been paying attention to what he and his advisers have been saying for the last few weeks, you probably weren’t surprised.

Particularly since the conventions, Romney has been trying to shed his image as a conservative extremist—by disavowing harsher elements of Paul Ryan’s budget, for example, and promising to replace Obamacare with a plan that would protect people with pre-existing conditions. On Wednesday night, Romney introduced yet another wrinkle when he suggested, for the first time, he might back off tax cuts for the rich if those cuts threaten to raise the deficit or increase taxes for the middle class.

Not that he was definitive about it. On Wednesday night, Romney chose his words carefully—avoiding too many specifics and leaving plenty of room for doubt over exactly what he was promising. On the Sunday talk shows, even some of Romney’s own supporters seemed confused. On ABC’s “This Week,” campaign adviser Ed Gillespie said Romney remained committed to an across-the-board tax cut. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former Republican candidate Newt Gingrich said the opposite.

I have no idea who is right, but I really don’t care. And neither should you.

Officially, Romney has been running for president since June, 2011. Unofficially, he’s been running for a lot longer than that. During that time he made quite a few policy commitments, although surprisingly few people seem to remember or have noticed all of them. 

He said he would cap federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product, setting aside 4 percent of GDP for defense spending. Such a limit would force draconian, virtually unthinkable cuts to programs like food inspections, public housing, air traffic control: Pretty much anything, and quite possibly everything, the federal government does besides defense and Social Security would be subject to serious funding cuts. Romney also vowed to repeal Obamacare and to end Medicaid as we know it. In its place, he proposed a tax deduction and a scaled-down insurance program for the poor that would, at best, cover only a fraction of the same people. According to independent and non-partisan estimates, tens of millions of Americans would lose health insurance. Among them would be the poorest and sickest people in America, depending on how states dealt with the funding cuts. 

And when Romney wasn't endorsing specific plans during the campaign, he was sending clear signals about where his sympathies lie. He mocked President Obama for suggesting that hiring more teachers would help the schools and boost the economy. He dispatched surrogates to lavish praise on the Ryan budget—the first Ryan budget, the one that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would have left the typical senior citizen responsible for two-thirds of his or her medical bills. In one memorable debate, he joined fellow Republican candidates in publicly rejecting spending deals that included even one dollar of tax increases for every ten dollars in spending cuts.

It appears Romney and his advisers now want us to believe that at least some of these old statements don't matter—that he suddenly believes in hiring teachers, for example, and that his health care plan would help many more people than his previous positions suggested. But it’s not like those previous commitments were ancient history. Every single example I just mentioned was based on statements that he and his advisers made within the last sixteen months.  

And some of those commitments remain the campaign's official position even now. With the notable exceptions of folks like Ed KilgoreEzra Klein, and Greg Sargent, almost nobody seems to have noticed that Romney actually reaffirmed his position about Medicaid on Wednesday night. And while Romney said his health plan would protect people with pre-existing conditions, he didn't mean that he would prohibit insurers from denying coverage or charging higher rates based on medical status, which is what Obamacare will do. Even one of his advisers admitted as much. Nor did Romney suggest he was backing away from that cap on federal spending. 

So what does this jumble of statements and positions tell us about Romney? One theory is that Romney's policy commitments don't mean much anyway—that he’s a technocrat who talks like a conservative ideologue only when necessary to please his party’s political base. David Brooks and Ross Douthat have made versions of this argument, perhaps because they hold relatively moderate views and want badly to believe Romney agrees with them. I'm dubious, but who knows—maybe they're right. 

Still, there’s a reason we ask politicians to make policy commitments during campaigns. Historically, those commitments have told us something about the plans candidates pursue in office. Those commitments have also told us something about the resistance candidates will put up in the face of political pressure. With Romney, the latter may be more important, because if he’s elected he'd almost certainly be working with a Republican Congress. The plans he endorsed are very much like the ones House Republicans have already passed. And, as Jamelle Bouie at the American Prospect notes, "When a President Romney faces political pressure, the vast majority of it will come from the right." If Romney is not willing to stand up to that pressure now, why should we expect he'd stand up to it as president? 

Keep in mind just how extreme these Republican plans are. According to Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the most recent Ryan budget calls for “the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history).” Let's be charitable and suppose that, come 2013, President Romney and a less radically conservative Senate scaled back that plan by half. It'd still be radical. 

Romney had more than a year of campaigning to position himself as a moderate. He chose not to do so. That tells us a lot—more, surely, than anything he says now.

Update: I added a few more links and tweaks to language. 

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