By all accounts, Mitt Romney handily won Wednesday night’s debate with Barack Obama, giving his campaign a badly needed boost going into the presidential campaign’s final weeks. But Romney still has a very big problem to overcome and that is his own party, which forced him to run a very different primary campaign than he had planned, saddling him with promises he cannot keep.
It is clear that Romney has been running for president for a long time, at least since he organized the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. As a Mormon, it would have been a simple matter for him to settle in Utah and build a political career there. As perhaps our most politically conservative state, Romney would been able to pursue policies well within the Republican mainstream, such as cutting taxes, deregulation and so on.
But Romney realized that this did not differentiate him from every other major Republican officeholder in the U.S., including Utah’s senior senator, Orrin Hatch, who also had presidential ambitions. Thus Romney concluded, rightly in my opinion, that Utah was not the right place for him to launch his political career. Having run for the Senate in 1994 from Massachusetts, where he spent most of his business career, he decided that running for governor from that state had more political potential.
Massachusetts has long been among our most liberal states, but one where Republicans had been able to win statewide office. Being elected there would prove that Romney had the potential to win in a politically hostile environment, show that he had broad appeal and the skills to win a nationwide general election.
And keep in mind that the Republican Party of the early 2000s was not nearly as conservative as it is today. George H.W. Bush had been elected in 1988 as a “kinder, gentler” president. The GOP nominated Sen. Bob Dole in 1996 even though he had long been a thorn in the side of the party’s tax cutters. And in 2000, George W. Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative.”
So when Romney was planning his long-term presidential strategy, being a centrist who could win the votes of liberals seemed like a very good plan. It would be capped by winning some important policy initiative in Massachusetts that could serve as a foundation for his presidential campaign. That issue was health reform.
In the early 2000s, every conservative health analyst, such as Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, agreed that an individual mandate to purchase private health insurance was the essence of conservative health reform. The alternative, they thought, was a completely government-run system.
Romney adopted this idea and implemented it in Massachusetts. He clearly contemplated that it would be a model for the country and would be his ticket to the White House.
Perhaps if Romney had won the Republican nomination in 2008, his strategy would have worked. But between then and now, a sea-change occurred within his party. The economic crisis led to rise of the Tea Party movement, a very conservative group with a powerful influence on the nominating process, where because turnout is small, it exercises disproportionate influence.
Even more importantly, Obama destroyed Romney’s signature issue by enacting in 2009 a health reform plan almost identical to the one he implemented in Massachusetts. Republicans reacted by denouncing the mandate as an unconstitutional and socialistic expansion of government power. All the conservative scholars who had previously supported the mandate hid under their beds and pretended they had never heard of the word “mandate.”
Romney was slow to recognize that the Republican Party of 2012 was quite different from the one in 2008, and very different from that in the early 2000s when he first developed his plan to become president. The GOP was far, far more conservative and absolutely convinced that whoever won the party’s nomination would win in a walk.
As I have previously explained, this destroyed Romney’s principal virtue – his moderate, technocratic record and ability to win in a liberal Democratic state. In the Tea Party dominated Republican Party of 2012, this was not merely a disadvantage, but an anchor around his neck.
Month after month, Romney watched manifestly unqualified candidates such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain lead in the polls, while those that were nominally qualified, such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, shamelessly pandered to the Republican Party’s most fringe right-wing element.
For a long time, Romney stuck to his original plan, believing that his obvious electability and large advantage in campaign funds would see him through to the nomination without being forced to take positions that would be a liability in the general election. But eventually, he realized that he needed to throw some red meat to the Tea Party. He did this by abandoning the relatively modest tax plan he offered in 2011 and instead putting forward a more aggressive proposal to cut statutory tax rates by 20 percent across the board. As an afterthought, he said that he would close enough tax loopholes to keep aggregate revenues from falling and maintain the existing distribution of taxes.
The problem is that it is mathematically impossible to do all those things. As Catherine Rampell of The New York Times explained the other day, Romney’s plan would cut taxes for those making more than $200,000 by $251 billion per year. But abolishing 100 percent of their tax deductions would only raise their taxes by $165 billion. Thus they would get an $86 billion tax cut. Therefore, Romney’s tax plan will either blow a hole in the deficit or the revenue will have to be made up by raising taxes on those making less than $200,000.
In Wednesday’s debate, Obama did a poor job of explaining the inherent contradiction in Romney’s tax plan, allowing Romney to present himself as a tax-cutter rather than someone who simply makes up numbers that don’t add up. Although this is a setback for Obama, I still think he will pull out a victory on Election Day. The GOP has saddled Romney with too much right-wing baggage for him to win.