The Etch A Sketch candidate?

April 3, 2012

When it comes to cutting taxes for the rich, scapegoating labor unions and attacking government regulations on business, Mitt Romney is as conservative as they get.

MITT ROMNEY got himself in hot water recently when one of his top advisers was caught telling the truth.

Eric Fehrnstrom responded to a question from a CNN reporter inquiring if the Romney campaign worried that the Republican primary campaign had pulled Romney too far to the right to appeal to the broader electorate in November. Fehrnstrom replied: "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

Romney's opponents for the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich pounced on the comment. This proved that Romney was a phony and would abandon conservatives in the general election, they claimed. Gingrich chided Romney for not having "the decency" to wait until the general election to "sell out" conservatives.

In many ways, Fehrnstrom was merely acknowledging the conventional wisdom in American presidential politics. First, it's said, candidates appeal to their "base" in the two parties to win the party nomination. Then, in the general election, they "pivot to the center" to reach out to less partisan "swing" voters in the middle.

To generations of labor activists, this will sound familiar. Democratic candidates go out of their way to promise all sorts of pro-working class policies when they speak before labor audiences during the Democratic primaries. But most of those bold promises are forgotten by the time the general election rolls around.

Many pundits wondered if Romney has damaged himself in competing with the likes of Santorum and Gingrich--and before that, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry--for support from the hard-core conservatives of the Republican base. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month seemed to back up this sentiment. The poll showed that the percentage of people with an unfavorable opinion of Romney has increased since the beginning of the primary season.

Still, most people in the U.S. don't pay full attention to the presidential candidates until the fall. At that point, Romney will have a second chance to introduce himself to the electorate. Most likely, he will return to the persona on which he staked his initial run against Obama--the businessman who can fix the economy that the "socialist" Obama has ruined. When he tries to make this shift, Romney may actually get some benefit out of having defeated troglodytes like Santorum and Gingrich.

Mitt Romney

Republican politicians like Santorum and Bachmann foreground their extreme positions on social issues. In some ways, this is inevitable when they are running as "insurgents" against a candidate anointed by the party establishment.

In fact, it's easy to forget that Romney himself posed as much more of a social conservative in 2008, when he was up against Sen. John McCain, who had the backing of many GOP leadership. So if Romney emerges as the last person standing in the Republican freak show, he could win the label of "moderate" by virtue of who he beat, rather than the policies he actually supports.

If Romney tamps down appeals to the Christian Right in the general election against Obama, that probably won't hurt him either. When the general election race comes into view, the right wing will line up behind Romney, no matter what they say now. In fact, it's likely that the most conservative people in the Republican electorate--the ones who Romney's team supposedly alienated with the "Etch A Sketch" comment--will end up being Romney's most fervent supporters.

THE REAL question is: Who is the real Mitt Romney?

If Romney has any real political core, it stems from his experience as a rich Wall Street corporate takeover specialist. We can see this in a number of ways. It's clear that he's far more comfortable and less tongue-tied when talking about issues like taxes, regulation and economic policy than about contraception and abortion.

Moreover, his string of "gaffes"--from his whimsical offer of a $10,000 bet to former opponent Rick Perry, to mentioning that he likes to fire people, to joking about how his auto executive father tried to hide the fact that he closed down a plant in Michigan when running for governor of that state--shows that he inhabits the oblivious world of the arrogant super-rich.

In a revealing profile of Romney's politics culled from his campaign autobiography No Apology, the New Yorker's Louis Menand describes Romney's program for "restoring American greatness":

Who or what stands in the way of restoring American productivity and American greatness? Romney lists some of the usual suspects, including multiculturalism (a "fraud") and "the self-loathing of Western intellectuals" (an odd expression, since all the Western intellectuals I know think rather well of themselves). But readers of No Apology are likely to come away with the impression that the chief internal enemy the United States faces today is labor unions. Romney thinks that unions can sometimes work constructively with management but that, fundamentally, they are protectors of the status quo. They make it harder for the destroying part to work.

This is why Romney opposed George Bush's efforts to protect the American steel industry by imposing a tariff on imports, and it's why he opposed the Detroit bailout. Actions like those interfere with the natural business process in the name of saving American jobs...

That way might be called Darwinian, except that in Romney's universe the organisms that struggle to adapt, survive, and reproduce are not individuals. They're firms.

This helps explain why Romney may be clumsy when discussing "social issues," but has had no hesitation in advocating a radical tax-cutting plan, embracing the austerity budget proposal of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, and praising Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich for their open attacks on unions and public-sector workers.

With the election still more likely to be fought on the question of the economy than on social issues, Romney's economic program shows the true depth of his extremism--or, more correctly, the right flank of neoliberal big business politics today.

NO DOUBT, the AFL-CIO and other unions--the chief backbone of Democratic Party get-out-the-vote operations in states around the country--have taken note of Romney's stands. They see themselves in his gun sights. And already, they're lining up behind Barack Obama and the Democrats--regardless of how little they've gained from the Obama administration.

For the White House, this is the best of all worlds. The Republican candidate will give Democratic base organizations plenty of reason to vote against Romney, and this will allow the Democrats the opportunity to escape from having to offer any reason to vote for them. And the White House, which is more interested in arranging a big-business endorsed "grand bargain" to cut entitlement programs than any other priority, can position itself to do just that.

As consumer advocate and former independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader put it in an "open letter" to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, criticizing the AFL-CIO's endorsement of Obama:

[W]hat did you receive for millions of American workers in your early, blanket endorsement of Mr. Obama? No wonder he can get away with giving the trade union movement and unorganized workers the back of his hand. You have unnecessarily allowed him to believe that you have nowhere to go. This is another way of saying that the Republicans, by being worse than the bad Democrats, are holding the American labor movement hostage to the corporatist Democratic Party.

As always the politics of the "lesser evil," the Democrats can win support for austerity measures from austerity's victims just because they aren't as "extreme" as the Republicans. But a lesser evil is still an evil.

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