Mitt Romney has been driving conservatives crazy since he began running for the White House, and just before losing three primaries last week to the social conservative Rick Santorum, he showed us why.
"… I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor; we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America …"
Outraged liberals said this is a modern-day Scrooge who can't possibly relate to the hardships of ordinary Americans. Conservatives, meanwhile, couldn't decide which was more maddening — that Romney is bad at politics or that he's bad at expressing the fundamentals of conservatism.
"Great politicians on the morning after a big win don't force their supporters to go around defending the candidate from the charge that he doesn't care about the poor," wrote the National Review's Jonah Goldberg. "They just don't."
In addition to serving up a soundbite that will bite him through 2012, Romney showed only a casual understanding of conservative principles. For one thing, don't say "safety net." Those are liberal terms. For another, Romney suggested that government's job is to help the poor, not to help the poor to help themselves. In fact, he seemed to recognize the utility of the safety net, and in doing so, implied that conservative attempts to reduce it would hurt more than help. As John McCormack wrote in the Weekly Standard, that's backwards. "To be anti-debt is to be anti-poverty."
Romney made an economic case for economic policy instead of a moral case for economic policy. Republicans can't debate welfare's merits, so they argue values. The point isn't whether welfare has qualitative good, but whether the poor are deserving. Since work is central to one's deserving of welfare, and since one's poverty stems definitively from one's inability to work or find work, the poor lose every which way.
But I don't think Romney cares about this, because I don't think he cares about ideas. He's a businessman, first and last, and though he'd do what conservatives want him to do, he'd do it his way, which would be bad for conservatism.
A phenomenon of the last 30 years that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves is the notion that running a government is like running a business. Ross Perot, Steve Forbes and Herman Cain — each was blessed with traits that made him a titan of industry and each made a run for the White House believing his success in business would make him a success in politics. Yet those same strengths can be liabilities. Cain is perhaps only the most spectacular example. Confidence carried him far in the pizza business, but he was so immune to self-doubt during his brief campaign that he appeared stunningly untroubled by those many sexual harassment allegations. That's more than hubris. That's a sense of invincibility coming from having lots of money.
Romney is a titan. He co-founded a private-equity firm, Bain Capital, whose sole aim was to maximize shareholder value. If workers needed to be laid off to make a profit, then so be it: Those workers were laid off. Nothing personal.
His budget proposal reflects this. It's more draconian than even Paul Ryan's. The Wisconsin congressman wanted to effectively privatize Medicaid, but compared to Romney's plan, that's kids' stuff. Romney wants spending on anything that's not defense and not Social Security to be 1.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product by 2021 — half of current outlays. It's reminiscent of Wall Street firm flipping a company for profit. You can take Romney out of Wall Street but you can't take Wall Street out of Romney.
Whatever conservatives think about Romney, they know his budget would deplete the safety net. You'd think they'd be happy, but they're not. And it's deeper than that.
Conservatives believe getting the poor off welfare helps the poor. But Romney is unable to wrap that goal in ideology. To him, it's a straight-up budgetary decision. But without the ideology, gutting the safety net is merely heartless and cruel. There's no compassion in that kind of conservatism.
So there's your problem and the real reason Romney is driving conservatives crazy. The very thing that made him a success — an ability to make heartless decisions in the pursuit of profit — may end up being a liability for conservatism. Ironically, Romney would shred the safety net honestly. He'd screw the poor, but he'd do it without telling them it's for their own good.
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