The Potential for Republican Buyer’s Remorse if Romney is Elected
In the highly charged, relentlessly partisan political climate of today, one only worsened by the ongoing presidential campaign, it is sometimes easy to forget that Romney isn’t exactly the Republican base’s favorite son. Indeed, in their fervent desire to defeat President Obama, the dislike and distinct distrust that many on the far right have for Governor Romney has been effectively swept under the proverbial rug.
If, however, Romney is successful in his quest for the presidency, this unity on the right will likely prove transient. Romney does not share the passion that many on the right have for various social issues; he is not, for example, as fervently pro-life as the evangelical Christians who comprise the bulk of the base of today’s Republican party. Additionally, a number of the promises that he has made during the course of the campaign will prove difficult to keep as the sharp distinction between the rhetoric of campaigning and the reality of governing sets in.
Romney has promised, among other things, to balance the budget, cut tax rates for all by 20 percent and to repeal Obamacare on day one of his presidency. All of these pledges will prove elusive. Additionally, his hawkish stance on several foreign policy issues, especially his stated desire to more actively intervene in various ways in the Middle East, are in contrast to the increasingly isolationist desires of many on the far right of his party weary of the seemingly endless wars that we are already engaged in and distinctly wary of involvement in any future conflicts. Like many politicians before him, Romney will find it difficult to conform to the image he has constructed while campaigning, all the more so because that image bears little resemblance to stances and policies he has adopted in the past.
Arguably the issue Republicans are most ardent about having addressed upon an ascension to the presidency by Mitt Romney is the swift, if not immediate, repeal of Obamacare. While there are certainly a number of options that would be available to a President Romney, immediate repeal is definitively not one of them. The Republicans would have to win control of the Senate and maintain their control over the House, in addition to Romney becoming president, in order to line up a majority vote in both branches of Congress to repeal the legislation. This scenario is unlikely as the Democrats appear to have the upper hand on retaining control, albeit by a thin margin, of the Senate.
However, if the Republicans do accomplish a complete sweep of all three, there still remains the distinct likelihood that any attempt to repeal Obamacare in its entirety would be blocked by a filibuster in the Senate. Republicans would have to have 60 votes in order to override a filibuster; given that their current number of seats is 47, reaching 60 would seem to be an insurmountable task. Repeal, immediate or otherwise, is a possibility so remote that it barely rates serious contemplation.
That is not to say that Romney and the Republicans cannot do serious damage to the bill. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the official name for what is more commonly known as Obamacare, was passed through a process called reconciliation. This is a legislative process that allows Congress to pass bills with a simple majority of votes. The same process could be applied in reverse to dismantle key pieces of the legislation as existent statutes are permitted to be amended through reconciliation if the modification results in deficit reductions. While technically not a repeal, this would in essence have the same effect. Reconciliation would, however, require that both branches of Congress reach that simple majority, which would in turn require that the Republicans control both the House and the Senate. Retention of control of the House by the Republicans is considered by many political pundits to be a certainty, control of the Senate by the Republicans unlikely. Therefore, Republicans would have to win over the small group of independents that exist in the Senate, as well as several Democrats in order to achieve that majority. The defection of Democrats to the Republican side on this issue is as remote a possibility as the Republicans controlling a sufficient number of seats to override a filibuster. Only a victory of unexpected magnitude by the Republican party would provide access to the reconciliation process.
It appears unlikely that the PPACA will be repealed or even curtailed through the legislative branch. However, control of Congress might not be necessary for Republicans to achieve their stated aim of destroying Obamacare. If Romney is elected, there are two options available to him through the executive branch that could indeed cripple the legislation. The first is the ability of the president to issue executive orders. Romney could issue waivers to all 50 states making them exempt from complying. There are, however, some caveats. It is unlikely that all 50 states would desire such a waiver as Obamacare is popular in many traditionally Democratic areas.
Additionally, even those states that would accept such a waiver would first have to apply to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and then, upon approval, wait until 2017 for those waivers to take effect. Much can happen in five years, so the waiver route, while a legitimate possibility, contains a great deal of uncertainty. The second, and more likely, executive option open to the president is through the budgeting process. The Budget and Accounting Act requires that the president submit an annual budget; this would give Romney the authority to cut funding for the PPACA which would effectively gut it as a piece of active legislation. This would appear to be the most likely approach for Romney to take given the options available.
The open question remains, however, as to whether Romney would follow through on his promise to repeal or at least defund Obamacare if given the opportunity to do so. Recent comments suggest a less hardline stance than that adopted in the past. Romney was quoted as saying “I’m not getting rid of all healthcare reform”, which is a markedly different mantra than the one he has maintained throughout his campaign. He expanded upon this remark by highlighting certain aspects of Obamacare that he favors, including ensuring that those with pre-existing conditions get coverage and that children have coverage available to them indefinitely under their parents’ plan. That Romney so openly stated a favorable opinion to any aspect of Obamacare in the midst of a presidential campaign is surprising; that he holds such views is not. After all it was his healthcare reform in Massachusetts that Obamacare is primarily based upon. Romney does have options through the executive branch to blunt or even destroy the efficacy of the PPACA. Whether he will take advantage of them or not remains to be seen.
The second of Romney’s campaign promises that has been most focused upon by his adherents is his repeated pledge to cut taxes. His plan, long on ideology and short on specifics, has included, at various times, the promise to reduce all individual income tax rates by 20 percent, to eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax and to eliminate the estate tax. This would leave a gaping hole in governmental revenue, a hole Romney has indicated he would fill by limiting tax deductions and loopholes that currently allow high-income taxpayers to reduce their tax payments.
This plan has come under fire from many, including some conservatives dubious of the math involved in the plan, as Romney claims, revenue neutral. His supporters, which include prominent Harvard professor of economics Martin Feldstein, claim that the Romney plan will indeed be revenue neutral thus avoiding a large tax increase on the middle class that would otherwise be necessitated to prevent an increase of the deficit. Feldstein has pointed out that historically lower tax rates have led to higher revenue totals due to the attractiveness of increasing one’s earnings in a lower tax rate environment. (It should be noted that Feldstein, in addition to his academic position, is a senior adviser to the Romney campaign and thus not an impartial observer.)
Others who have examined the sparse details of the Romney economic plan provided thus far are more uncertain as to the workability of the proposal. These detractors have pointed out that his plan does not contain any numbers, only vague promises of closing loopholes and limiting deductions in an effort to avoid a negative impact upon the deficit. The Tax Policy Center conducted a study that calculated the costs of the tax cuts and reductions that Romney has specified, such as eliminating the estate tax and lowering the individual income tax rates by 20 percent, and have concluded that the total cost will be approximately $456 billion per year starting in 2015. The Tax Policy Center has also concluded that there simply aren’t enough loopholes and deductions currently existent within the tax code that could be eliminated to balance the cost of Romney’s plan.
In response to the criticism, various Romney advisers as well as other prominent Republicans have attempted to clarify the points of the plan. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said during a speech at the Republican National Convention that “It would be paid for by getting rid of a lot of the underbrush in the code.” This would seemingly echo the campaign’s promises to close loopholes and eliminate deductions. While attractive on its surface, this proposal could run into difficulties upon implementation; while some measures might prove wildly popular, such as those that benefit corporate special interests, other proposed loophole closures could rebound on Romney such as the elimination of deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations. While stressing that he speaks only for himself, and not for the campaign, Portman has gone on to suggest in several interviews that specific reductions wouldn’t be limited, but rather the total dollar amount of cumulative deductions would be capped. This idea is remarkably similar to one that Obama has repeatedly proposed, with his plan differing in that it would be specific to upper-income taxpayers; to date Congress has shown little enthusiasm for the idea.
The repeated criticism of his tax plan has also drawn reaction directly from the Romney campaign. Senior advisor Ed Gillespie’s comments during an interview seem to backtrack a bit from the 20 percent reduction for all promise. “The 20 percent tax rate – I think that people understand that is a broad principle, that the tax rate needs to come down and we need to broaden the base. That’s the principle. The principle is also that we’re not going to change the share of taxes paid by upper-income earners and we’re going to give tax relief to the middle class and it’s going to be deficit neutral.” Gillespie seems to be concerned with offering a little something to everyone; no new taxes for the rich, tax relief for the middle class, and no impact on the deficit as a result. It sounds wonderful in theory, but the devil is in the details, and a plan that gives everyone exactly what they want is one that sounds simply too good to be true. Like his promise to repeal Obamacare, Romney is likely to find that campaign promises are easier to make than they are to keep.
The third of Romney’s promises that have been oft repeated during his years on the campaign trail focuses on balancing the budget. In the past many political leaders have offered a great deal of lip service without associated action regarding the budget deficit. Romney’s repeated pledge to balance the budget, much like his tax plan, has been accompanied by very few specifics on how this would actually be accomplished. Additionally, he has at times wavered and at other times reaffirmed his timeline of having the budget balanced by 2020. Most recently he reiterated the pledge to accomplish this goal within eight to 10 years during one of the debates. This would appear to be a difficult timeline to adhere to, in particular since even his fellow Republicans don’t seem to be onboard.
A number of issues have arisen that have led to a cessation, for the time being anyway, of talk regarding the balancing of the budget amongst politicians in Washington D.C. There has been a bipartisan surge of support for increased defense spending, cuts to which would almost certainly have to be made in order to balance the budget within the time context specified by the Romney campaign. This intensified level of focus upon spending cuts that affect the military is due to the threat of the impending “Fiscal Cliff” where if no deal is reached in Congress as to how to cut spending and lower the deficit, automatic tax hikes and spending decreases will go into effect at the end of 2012. A warning from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in a recent report echoed the opinion of many that the country would be plunged back into recession during the first half of next year if this spending sequestration is allowed to occur.
Fellow Republicans seem equally concerned with a blind push towards a balanced budget given the current economic climate. Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a fiscally conservative advocacy group, said in a recent interview, “But the economic consensus is you don’t want a balanced budget in these times because it would slow the economic recovery. So even most traditional deficit hawks – myself included – would still say that until the economy recovers, you don’t want to get carried away with tax increases or spending cuts.” An example of the effect that Bixby, and others, fear would occur if the budget deficit were closed too quickly can be seen quite clearly in the situation that Europe currently finds itself in. An emphasis on spending cuts, tax hikes and fiscal austerity has backfired spectacularly as the private sector was unable to fill the economic void left by the significant and rapid downsizing of government in various countries. Government spending in the United States, which has contributed significantly to the dramatic increase in the deficit, has served as a economic shock absorber and has done much to prevent the Great Recession from becoming the Great Depression part two, which is what much of Europe is currently experiencing.
Another Republican who seems to be in disagreement with Romney’s balanced budget projections is his own vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan. Romney’s promise to balance the budget by 2020 while only reducing non-defense appropriations by 5 percent is sharply at odds with Paul Ryan’s plan, constructed before his vice-presidential nomination, which cuts roughly 20 percent from the same accounts yet doesn’t promise a balanced budget until 2040. The accuracy of Romney’s plan is called further into question by the fact that Ryan’s plan was examined for accuracy by the CBO, while Romney’s plan wasn’t.
The divergence between the two plans has made Ryan, at times, visibly uncomfortable. During an interview with Fox News, Ryan was unwilling to express confidence that Romney’s proposal would balance the budget, nor could he provide many specifics, even going so far as to say that the campaign hasn’t “run the numbers on that specific plan.” This is an astonishing statement; the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican party openly admitted that the central plank of Romney’s entire campaign, his alleged ability to get the deficit under control and by proxy the long term health of the economy, hasn’t had its associated numbers examined for accuracy. This has led to Romney backing off then reaffirming his pledge to balance the budget within the originally specified time, with his willingness to commit to the plan seemingly dependent more on context than on conviction.
At other times the campaign has resorted to floating alternative trial balloons such as the more realistic goal of trimming $500 billion from the deficit by 2016.
Even this latter goal is suspect given that the base of the Republican Party obstinately refuses to consider any type of new taxes whatsoever. Romney has attempted to stay in line with the base by repeating the time-tested mantra of how raising taxes would only hurt economic growth and thus are not an option to help balance the budget and decrease the deficit. This statement is not, however, in line with historical fact. During the 1960s and 1970s, this country had nearly balanced budgets with significantly higher top marginal tax rates than exist now, according to Joel Prakken, an economist at Macroeconomic advisors.
Indeed, the consensus among most economists is that the most effective way of balancing the budget and reducing the deficit is a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, not just one or the other. With Republicans refusing to raise taxes, and indeed insisting on lowering them even further, this leaves Romney with the only option available: to continue to sell an economic plan devoid of tax increases that most observers view as simply unworkable. If Romney is elected, one suspects that his promises not to raise taxes will vanish much like George H.W. Bush’s promises did. The reality of this country’s economic situation makes it clear that a continuance of such historically low tax rates as are currently in place is simply unsustainable in the long term.
The fact that Romney’s social views lack a certain level of simpatico with the Republican base have been well documented. In no area is that disconnect more apparent than on the issue of abortion, a fact highlighted by what can only be described as the extreme views on the matter held by his running mate, Paul Ryan. Romney on this issue, as on many others, has shown an astonishing lack of consistency, not only during the campaign, but throughout his years in public life. Democrats have attempted to take advantage of Romney’s flip flopping by trying to paint him as an extremist, one who holds views similar to those held by Paul Ryan. The latter was the co-sponsor of a bill called the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” that initially only allowed exceptions due to “forcible rape,” a baffling term not defined anywhere in the criminal code. This term was eventually removed from the legislation after public outcry ensued. Still, the legislation’s intent was nothing short of abominable; it attempted to make illegal abortions in situations where the mother was impregnated by rape or through incestuous sexual activity. Although Romney is clearly pro-life, attempts to paint the extent of his support of the pro-life movement as mirroring those of his running mate are flawed.
Romney has never believed that abortion should be outlawed in cases of rape or incest, nor does he push an extreme pro-life agenda, instead preferring to duck the issue whenever possible. As William Saletan of Slate.com observed, when it comes to abortion, Romney isn’t a radical, he’s a weathervane. Romney is pro-life, but is not passionate about his views in the way that many in the Republican base are; Romney instead pretends to care as much as they do because he needs the pro-life vote to get elected.
While Romney is in favor of banning most abortions and plans on zeroing out federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the idea that he is intent on overturning Roe v. Wade is simply not accurate. Romney wants to win elections, and he cannot do so if he acts as an extremist; if he were to aggressively push a pro-life agenda as president, he would lose the independent vote and would likely fail to be re-elected. Romney’s willingness to be as pliable as he feels he needs to be on this issue is one of the few consistent things about his positions.
Romney ran as a pro-choice candidate in 1993 when he challenged Ted Kennedy for the latter’s Senate seat. He did so because polling data told him that he would not have any chance of getting elected if ran as a pro-lifer. Romney repeated this strategy of convenience in 2002 when he was elected governor of Massachusetts. Only after his appearance on the national stage did he begin to present himself as a pro-life candidate, first in 2008 during his initial presidential bid and then again in 2012. On this issue more than any other Romney will tell you whatever it is he thinks you want to hear in order to facilitate being elected, and it is on this issue more than any other that the base of his own party distrusts him.
Recently Romney has attempted to distance himself from the positions of his running mate by declaring “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” Yet during one of the debates he stated that he thought the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade. Later he qualified his qualification by declaring, "My position has been clear throughout this campaign ... I'm in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother." When presented with his original support of the Human Life Amendment, which would extend the protections afforded by the 14th amendment of the Constitution to cover unborn children, he riposted beautifully by saying, "there are a wide range of possible human life amendments" and additionally there is little chance of getting both houses and 38 out of 50 states to support such an amendment anyway. Confused yet? Don’t be. There is almost a mystical aspect to the consistent inconsistency that Romney brings to this particular topic, with that inconsistency employed to serve one end, the only end that Romney cares about: winning elections.
Romney will portray himself on many issues, but on this one in particular, in any way he thinks will best position himself to win. Romney doesn’t care about pushing a radical pro-life agenda, he cares about getting elected. Period. Anyone on either side of the ideological divide of this particular issue who has convinced themselves otherwise has deluded themselves to the nature of the man. His decision to choose Ryan as his vice-presidential candidate was not an indication of agreement with Ryan’s more extreme (and more sincere) beliefs, it was blatant pandering to a Republican base widely dissatisfied with the conservative bonafides of their presidential candidate. Ryan himself has said as much, observing, “I’m very proud of my pro-life record, and I’ve always adopted the idea that—the position that—the method of conception doesn't change the definition of life. But let’s remember; I’m joining the Romney-Ryan ticket. And the President makes policy. And the President—in this case—the future President Mitt Romney, has exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother, which is a vast improvement of where we are right now.” In other words, that Ryan is on the ticket won’t change the fact that Romney doesn’t share his vice-presidential nominee’s views. It is highly unlikely that Romney will attempt to implement any changes to the status quo of the abortion laws in this country because to do so would threaten his chances of election.
Romney’s foreign policy tenets are much like his economic plan and his promise to balance the budget: broad in ideology but lacking in specifics. Romney has consistently failed to illustrate what he would do differently than Obama and why those differences in approach should be expected to work. There is little daylight between Romney’s position and that of the president’s in regard to Afghanistan, for example, and while he has urged greater urgency and aggression when dealing with Iran, he has offered little in terms of substantive policy initiatives for checking that country’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons. The lack of clarity in many aspects of his foreign policy may be as deliberate as his flip-flopping on abortion.
The Republican party is sharply divided on what America’s role in the world should be as neoconservatives on one extreme wish to aggressively promote democracy in the Middle East while the rapidly growing isolationist strain of the party remains fearful of what forces such an approach would unleash and are increasingly weary of the lengthy conflicts that our country finds itself mired in. Additionally, Romney faces opposition from deficit hawks far more interested in reducing our national debt than in another boots-on-the-ground effort in the Middle East. Romney’s advocacy of becoming more involved in Syria is not likely to find a receptive audience among many on the far right as a result.
When Romney does attempt to differentiate himself from Obama, he at times makes statements that are at best odd and at worst frighteningly uninformed, such as his claim that Russia, and not Iran, North Korea or Al Qaeda, is our country’s number-one geopolitical foe. Not only is this clearly not the case, but alienating Russia at a time when we need their permission to transport supplies through their territory to our troops in Afghanistan is unwise. He has promised trade restrictions on China as punishment for the consistent currency manipulation they engage in as part of an effort to increase the attractiveness of their exports. Again, this seems like less than an ideal strategy given that China has proven to be a valuable creditor at a time when we desperately required one to sort our own economic travails. Additionally, they are the only country that has sufficient relations with North Korea to help restrain that country’s deployment of the nuclear weapons in its arsenal. The only significant area in which the two presidential candidates differ is on military spending. Obama has introduced cuts during his administration and if the U.S. does indeed go over the Fiscal Cliff, billions more in cuts will be implemented. Romney has insisted on increasing military spending, which even with the isolationists of his own party is sure to win points as he can paint such spending as helping to ensure our country is properly defended.
Even this represents a double-edged sword, however, as an increase in spending is likely to jeopardize promises he has made regarding lowering taxes and balancing the budget. If elected, Romney will face a difficult task in balancing the divergent foreign policy perspectives of the two wings of his party as it is likely he will anger one while attempting to satisfy the other.
Romney has always been regarding with suspicion by the Republican base as someone who is not a true conservative. If elected to office, he is likely to prove those suspicions justified as many of the promises he has made during the campaign will be difficult to keep. Repealing Obamacare “on day one” isn’t going to happen; indeed a repeal of Obamacare in its entirety at any point is improbable. A far more likely scenario is a long, slow rollback through a combination of a variety of measures, with some aspects of the PPACA legislation being retained. That this will represent sufficient red meat to keep the Republican base satisfied on the issue is questionable. The longer the process drags on, the more their doubts about Romney’s true intentions will grow. He is, after all, the man who passed the legislation that Obamacare is based upon. If Romney fails in his attempt to inflict the level of damage upon the PPACA that Republicans have been clamoring for or worse, fails to even try, the base will turn on him without hesitation.
Romney’s promise to cut taxes dramatically will not be kept. The reality of our fiscal situation and the ongoing global economic crisis is this: we have $16 trillion in debt and an uphill battle to maintain even the mediocre economic growth of the past several years. A tax cut as massive as Romney proposes cannot be paid for even if every loophole and deduction in the tax code is eliminated. Obama has proposed an extension of the Bush 43 era tax cuts, with the exception of those applied to the top tier income earners; it is doubtful whether Romney, if elected, will venture much farther than that. Our country simply cannot afford it. Romney’s promise to balance the budget will fall by the wayside for the same reason; economists agree that dramatic cuts in government spending in the middle of a weak economic recovery will be counterproductive. Even if draconian cuts in spending were made, such as those proposed by the Paul Ryan budget plan, a balanced budget within the eight-to-10 year timeframe promised by Romney is a fairytale.
Romney’s tap dance around the more radical social agenda endorsed by the evangelicals of his party will continue in office much like it has during the campaign. Abortion is only one of a number of issues that he will speak with conviction about in one context, only to then retreat from those same statements as rapidly as possible in a context less receptive to those views. If social conservatives are anticipating that Romney will step up and launch an attack on Roe v. Wade, they will be disappointed. That is not to say that Romney won’t attempt to mollify them by engaging in more oblique attacks upon certain aspects of the pro-choice movement; for example, his antipathy towards federal funding of Planned Parenthood is clear. But here again, we run into the conundrum that Romney will always face: how to sufficiently appease the far right without alienating so many independents that he risks his re-election chances. When faced with that particular decision, Romney will abandon any pretense of loyalty to a conservative social agenda in favor of retaining the office.
Romney will also have to engage in evasive gyrations when it comes to whatever foreign policy approach he attempts to take. The Republican Party, long known for its pragmatic realpolitik, has devolved into two camps with equally unrealistic approaches: a hyper-aggressive group of neoconservatives who view the Iraq invasion and resultant occupation as a success and who are now demonstrative in their insistence that we take a similarly proactive approach to Syria and a more loose coalition of isolationists who seem to be hopeful that we can disengage from the world altogether. The tightrope Romney will have to tread to avoid infuriating one group or the other does not appear to be an enviable path. At least, however, he has years of experience of switching back and forth between diametrically opposed positions to rely upon; if anyone has the inherent skill-set to feign sympathy for everyone’s positions simultaneously it is the former Governor of Massachusetts.
Fellow Republican Mike Huckabee once accused Mitt Romney of “having no soul”. Hyperbole to be sure, and particularly harsh hyperbole at that, but a comment reflective of the negative viewpoint the Republican base, evangelicals, Tea Partiers, social conservatives et al, frequently hold about their own presidential candidate.
A less vitriolic, and perhaps more accurate assessment of Romney’s character, has been offered by a number of people, Republicans included. The accusation: Romney has no core. This is the great dread of the Republican Party; that the candidate they are fervently hoping will unseat Obama proves to be everything they’ve always feared him to be. Someone with no real conservative principles or agenda, someone far more interested in securing and retaining personal power, the conservative movement be damned. Their fear is justified.
If Romney is indeed elected, it is not implausible to predict a backlash before the midterm elections of November 2014 by the same people who helped elect him into office. Say what you want about the reactionaries currently wielding a level of influence within the national government disproportionate to their numbers, they are true believers, keepers of the flame. Romney is most assuredly not; he is, if anything the absolute antithesis of the nature, the soul if you will, of the very base of the party he would nominally be the head of. This will become apparent, unambiguously, very early on in a Romney administration as one campaign promise after another is neglected. The result will be the same dysfunctional, unharmonious, political gridlock that we have today; with the only real difference that it will be a Republican president, not a Democratic one that will be the object of the far right’s loathing. Their efforts to thwart Romney will be as ceaseless as the passionate labors they have engaged in to prevent the Obama administration from getting anything of substance accomplished. Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.
Michael Cancella is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: Gage Skidmore (Flickr, Creative Commons); New America Media.