(It might surprise you.)
As the Republican primary bumbles forward, with Mitt Romney (on my read, anyway) the inevitable nominee but a weaker frontrunner than his supporters had hoped and one who is having to fight off the surprisingly large nuisance of Rick Santorum, I’ve done a lot of thinking about where I stand on these two candidates and why.
To put it kindly, I have major issues with both of them.
In the case of Santorum, these are, where philosophy is concerned, neatly summed up by the description “big government conservative.” The guy’s voting record encompasses pretty much everything I hated about Bush-era Republicanism: The focus on tax cuts over spending restraint (both are important, but without one, the other can only ever be temporary); support for Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind; enthusiastic support for corrupting earmarks and wasteful spending; the seeming focus on social issues over economic policy and fiscal restraint; the general belief and confidence in our ability to solve nearly all problems via intervention by an arm of the state. Add to that Santorum’s preference for protectionist policy, his rhetoric about homosexuality which comes off to me as way OTT (unlike that of many people opposed to gay marriage, I would add), his sincere, but hardline stance on abortion, and undisguised disdain for libertarianism and libertarian thinking, and we have someone who is very out of kilter with me, as participant in our political system.
In the case of Romney, the problems are multi-faceted and harder to neatly sum up. First and foremost, I have been on record as having major issues with Romneycare since 2006, and I remain opposed to it and unable to see it as good policy, no matter how Mittens may defend it. As Massachusetts governor, his socially liberal stances (except on guns) were, in large but not entirely, OK-ish with me, but his fiscal stances were not as conservative as I would have liked (and moreover, I don’t think that was merely a function of him having to work within the liberal and Democratic-dominated Massachusetts political culture). His flexibility and willingness to contort himself on just about any issue going deserves a gold medal (but not an easy walk to a presidential nomination). He is not as good a candidate as I would like, is gaffe-prone when not scripted, and generally not terribly inspiring. He hasn’t, in my view, taken sufficient steps to address his liabilities as a candidate; he still comes off as wooden and robotic and unrelatable. He has advocated policy that would if implemented, I think, at least run the risk of a trade war with China—a real problem in my book.
But at the end of the day, as much as I have historically disliked Romney and as much as I really wish Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman had performed better in this contest and proved capable of winning the nomination, the bottom line is, if it’s a choice between Romney and Santorum, I’ll take Romney, and here’s the reason why.
To some extent it is about Santorum’s philosophy (as contrasted with Romney’s lack of one, or a consistent one). To some extent it is about my general sense that yes, Romney would be more viable in a general election for a bevy of reasons, some philosophical, but also organizational, financial and, yes, optical (Romney looks like a President, Santorum does not—to me, anyway).
But the more I think about it, the more I think it comes down to this: Mitt Romney, for whatever his flaws, I feel often looks for ways to adapt to new circumstances (seriously—the guy is pretty adaptable!), and identify new opportunities where adversity and challenges are primarily apparent. Does this make him a crafty so-and-so who often comes off as relentlessly self-serving, single-minded and ambitious? Absolutely. Is that the kind of character we all universally love in politicians? No, not really (we like rhetoric about sacrifice, public service, lifelong devotion to a cause greater than oneself or one’s family, friends, business or social orbit). But is it better than what we get with Santorum? Yes. When we’re considering the presidency and the potential for someone occupying the most powerful role in global affairs at the helm of an economy still facing some major, long term, structural (I fear) challenges, I think it is.
Here’s the thing about Santorum: There’s little in what he says that reads to me as anything but trying to fix today’s problems by going back to yesterday.
No, I am not arguing as many liberals do that Rick Santorum would, as President, forcibly take us back to the days where cultural norms dictated that the vast majority of women would be housewives and mothers chained to the kitchen sink unable to pursue careers on an equal footing to men, without access to birth control, etc., etc., and where non-college educated white males had an inherent advantage in the employment marketplace because they didn’t face competition on an equal footing from women or minorities, and in which all gays and lesbians were firmly closeted and made to feel that their feelings towards members of the same sex were at best shameful and perhaps even criminal.
But Santorum does seem, on a number of levels, to prefer to confront our current, modern, new challenges by reverting to what worked—or in some cases didn’t work, but was the policy or the norm-- in yesteryear.
From Santorum, you hear a lot of criticism of Obamacare (and it’s state-level twin, Romneycare). That’s fine. I think it’s bad policy, too. What you don’t hear much of—or such is my personal read, anyway—is an acknowledgment that our health care system, pre-Obamacare, also had some pretty significant flaws, or much detail about how he would reform health care. At the end of the day, repealing Obamacare is fine and should happen, but it doesn’t deal with very real problems that do exist. Going back to 2008 or so isn’t enough.
Meanwhile, on the economy, one of Santorum’s main ideas for revival seems to be getting back to the manufacturing economy of old, and providing lots of tax incentives to accomplish this goal (as a matter of policy, something I am suspicious of—why use the thumb of government on the scales to benefit a particular type of industry? Would the beneficiaries of such a scheme even in practice be restricted to what Santorum appears to mean by manufacturer? Would this pass muster from a WTO perspective? Hmmmm).
I happen to agree with Santorum that not everyone needs a college education to succeed and be happy in life, and I do personally have some concerns about a higher education bubble. However, when I hear Santorum talk up manufacturing and talk down education (and that is how his comments about college read to a lot of people), it carries for me a whiff of “let’s deal with our economic travails not by pressing forward, but by trying to recreate the economic circumstances of an earlier, happier decade.” I’m all for making more stuff in America (we're pretty good at building cars, for example), but does anyone realistically think that we’re going to go toe-to-toe with developing nations in the unskilled (or relatively unskilled) labor market, or that if we do, the outcomes will be what we’d optimally like? If Santorum sounded more like Peter Thiel when talking about the arguable lack of value in a college education, or if, like Thiel, he emphasized more the importance of entrepreneurship and innovation in the economy, I’d probably take a different view. But to me, anyway, Santorum’s rhetoric suggests he has a rather different vision for the future than does Thiel—and one that’s more about attempting to recreate comfortable elements of a past that is gone baby gone, and ain’t coming back, than seizing opportunities that arise with challenges and moving forward to something better, different, and new.
And yes, there is a social issues tie in.
We live in a free country, and Rick Santorum is entitled to believe whatever he wants (e.g., contraception is a bad thing) and express that belief as publicly as he likes (e.g., in TV interviews). I may not agree, but I will stand up for his right to express his viewpoints, which I do believe are sincerely held.
That being said, I do think Santorum thinks America would be a happier, better place if women focused on their roles as wives and mothers, as opposed to their careers—which again feels like a harkening back to an earlier time that frankly I don’t think can be recreated (and in my own life, I wouldn't want recreated).
For an indicator of why, read this piece, published by The Atlantic back in 2010. It would be hard to summarize it in full here, but suffice to say, it contains some rather interesting information about the society we now live in, in which gender roles look really different than what many consider “traditional.” Recent years have exhibited a trend of women increasingly becoming the breadwinners in their households, a trend that appears to have been exacerbated at least to a degree by the recession (though it does bear noting that there’s some evidence that jobs being created now are going to men more than women, and that public sector job losses have disproportionately affected women—see here). The datapoints referenced in the Atlantic piece and the NPR story linked, as well as always all-important anecdotal evidence, make it hard for me to believe that we’re going back to a world anytime soon where the norm is Dad as the sole breadwinner, Mom at home with the kids, cooking and cleaning—whether Santorum would like to create public policy aimed at incentivizing that or making it a more viable option, or not.
At the end of the day, I have a lot of issues with Romney, on a lot of different subjects. He wasn’t my first, second or third choice for the GOP nomination. I don’t expect him to knock my socks off as our nominee; frankly, I expect he’ll disappoint me on many levels. But I will be happier with him as the nominee than I would with Santorum because my sense is that Romney has, or will come up with, ideas to fix the economy other than trying to go back to the good old days, whenever they were. For Santorum, perhaps that is the 50’s. For plenty of other politicians, I would add, perhaps that’s the 90’s or the early 2000’s—a lot of pundits I hear these days seem convinced that if we could just get back more towards where we were with housing earlier this century, things would be better (count me a skeptic on that one).
Bain Capital, whose name we will hear invoked plenty in connection with Romney’s, evolved out of looking at what is known in some quarters as the “principal-agent” problem, and coming up with an approach that better aligned incentives (for more on that, read this). Romney, facing a situation in which he was exceedingly unlikely to win re-election as Massachusetts Governor, used that circumstance as an opportunity to aim bigger—run for President.
Will he win? I still think there are a number of reasons why Obama has a better shot at winning re-election than Romney does of taking the White House. But I am also convinced that Romney will be the nominee, and given the alternative, I do believe (though I remain something far short of a Romney fan) that that is better than the apparent alternative for the reasons I’ve stated—different though they may be to what you expected when you began reading this.