Saturday, January 7, 2012

Splitting Hairs

Reading Jed Lewison’s take on Nick Kristof’s column on Mitt Romney, I am reminded of that age old song that goes, “You say potato, I’ll say po-tah-to.” Of course no matter how you say it, it’s still spelled the same.  Semantics, what a concept.

To sum up, Kristof’s column in The New York Times, titled “Waiting for Mitt the Moderate,” was hardly a ringing endorsement of the former governor of Massachusetts.

The reassuring thing about Mitt Romney is that for most of his life he probably wouldn’t have voted for today’s Mitt Romney.

This is a man who registered as a Republican only in preparation for his 1994 Senate campaign against Edward Kennedy; previously, Romney had registered as an independent. As recently as 2002, in his successful run for governor of Massachusetts, he described himself this way: “People recognize that I am not a partisan Republican, that I’m someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive.”

That was accurate, and Romney became an excellent, moderate and pragmatic governor of Massachusetts. But then, in 2005, he apparently began to fancy himself as Republican presidential timber and started veering to the right in what we can all pray was a cynical, unprincipled pander.

If we do see, as I expect we will, a reversion in the direction of the Massachusetts Romney, that’s a flip we should celebrate. Until the Republican primaries sucked him into its vortex, he was a pragmatist and policy wonk rather similar to Bill Clinton and President Obama but more conservative. (Clinton described Romney to me as having done “a very good job” in Massachusetts.) Romney was much closer to George H.W. Bush than to George W. Bush.

So, in the coming months, the most interesting political battle may be between Romney and Romney. Now, do we really want a chameleon as a nominee for president? That’s a legitimate question. But I’d much rather have a cynical chameleon than a far-right ideologue who doesn’t require contortions to appeal to Republican primary voters, who says things that Republican candidates have all been saying and, God forbid, actually means it.

Now read Lewison’s rebuttal in Daily Kos, titled “Mitt Romney: Moderate, chameleon or right-winger.”

I understand the impulse behind Kristof's musings, but even if Mitt Romney is a chameleon, the fact remains that he is fueling and encouraging the political right by pandering to them. That alone speaks negatively about his character. Moreover, it is a perfect illustration of what Romney would likely be as president: an empty vessel who allowed Congress to drive his agenda.

Kristof speaks highly of Romney's tenure in Massachusetts, but don't forget, Democrats still controlled the legislature there. Imagine for a moment that Romney had been governor of a state with a conservative state legislature. Is there any doubt that he'd have been a very different governor?

Perhaps with a progressive majority in Congress, a President Romney wouldn't be a disaster. But with a Republican majority—even in just one chamber—Romney would be an absolute nightmare. Anyone who wants a sensible approach to governance needs to realize that there really is no acceptable Republican presidential candidate, chameleon or otherwise. And as important as it is to reelect President Obama, it's also critical that we return Congress to Democratic control.

Ok, see the problem?  It’s quite clear that neither man has much use for Romney and that neither would likely vote for him.  The difference – and this is where the potato / po-tah-to reference comes in – is that Kristof is simply suggesting that when it comes to losing the White House – still a distinct possibility even with an improving economy – if one had a choice between complete Armageddon and a few bombed out cities, the latter would be infinitely more desirable.  In the end, collateral damage, if you can contain it somewhat, is preferable to total annihilation.

No matter what your level of respect for the man – and I for one have him just north of an insurance salesman – it is quite clear to anyone with half a brain that Mitt Romney is no Michele Bachmann, or Rick Perry, or Rick Santorum, or Ron Paul, or Newt Gingrich.  In fact, the main reason why he is polling so well against Obama among independents is the same reason the Tea Party holds him with such contempt: no matter how much he huffs and he puffs like the other loons, he isn’t one of them.  The Tea Party knows it and independents know it.  The only ones who seem oblivious to this are progressives like Lewison.  The only acceptable scenario is an Obama reelection coupled with a return of Congress to “Democratic control.”

Granted that would be an ideal scenario, one worth fighting for and one, I’m sure, Kristof would also like to see unfold.  Of course the ideal, while desirable, doesn’t always happen, which is the point that Kristof is making.  Virtually every poll taken shows the presidential race a virtual dead heat; the Democratic majority in the Senate is very much in jeopardy; and even if Republicans lose some seats in the House, they will more than likely retain control.

Now anything could happen between now and November.  The Tea Party could throw a hissy fit over the payroll tax extension like they did in December, further eroding public confidence in them and giving the President a well-needed boost in the opinion polls.  Conversely, Europe could implode sending the markets spiraling downward along with a still fragile economy.  If unemployment were to start rising again, that would enhance the GOP’s position in the general election.

Kristof, like many pragmatic progressives, isn’t pulling for a Republican win; he’s merely hedging his bets against what will likely be a very close and bitterly fought contest.  The winner take all mindset that many progressives have isn’t all that different from that of many far-right conservatives.  And while it may pain some of my fellow comrades to admit this, neither side has the moral high ground when it comes to this sentiment.  Indeed, it’s at the heart of what has been driving the country into the ground for years and sooner or later it has to stop.

A President Mitt Romney may or may not be a “nightmare.” A President Rick Santorum or Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich would most assuredly be.  Anyone who doubts that has some serious problems of their own to contend with.     

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