Almost Believing In America: My Problem With Mitt Romney's Tone
After all the excitement of the summer, Mitt Romney remains the favourite for the GOP nomination. Since the ridiculous debate format - gotcha questions from liberal journalists and 30 second 'responses' - can hardly give a rounded picture of the man, I have read his 160 page pamphlet Believe In America: Mitt Romney's Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth.
It's full of good stuff: stirring rhetoric, damning statistics, illuminating graphs. It has some detailed proposals, and some less detailed ones. It does a great job of illustrating Obama's failures. (It has one section of what I consider to be incredible stupidity - on China - but that is another subject.) It does a lot of things well. And yet, and yet...
The tone of the pamphlet just seems a little weak. It pulls its punches. Just when you think there is going to be a clear statement of principle a caveat or qualification sneaks in.
Now, I'm going to try to be fair to Romney, and I am calling this out as my problem with his tone, not necessarily his problem. I do acknowledge that he is trying to win a general election and not my, or even Ricochet's, endorsement. And I do realise that this is a pamphlet about Jobs and Economic Growth, so that if X is The Right Thing To Do and creates jobs, I can understand that in this work it is sensible to say 'Mitt Romney will do X to create jobs' and not necessarily mention the principle. But. Still.
First, the good. And some of it is very good.
As we move forward, a fundamental question before us is the proper role of the federal government in our economic life. The President appears to believe that government can do a better job managing the economy than can a free people and free enterprise. I disagree. Washington has become an impediment to economic growth. Extracting the overreaching hand of government will not be easy. Entrenched interests and their allies in government will fight every step of the way. But it is not a battle from which we can shrink. We must restore the principles that have enabled the American economic engine to outperform the world. The federal government has become bloated to the point of dysfunctionality. (p4) [Extract 1]
(Nice. As I say, the reference to "in our economic life" is perhaps superfluous as a matter of principle, but in a targeted pamphlet makes sense.)
[G]overnment cannot create jobs—at least not productive ones that contribute to our long-term prosperity. It is economic growth, not government growth, that provides productive opportunities for American workers. (p33-34)
A Romney administration will act swiftly to tear down the vast edifice of regulations the Obama administration has imposed on the economy. (p59) [Extract 2]
The United States cannot afford to tie itself in more regulatory knots. Our current economic difficulties have multiple roots, but over- and mis-regulation are primary among them. (p63)
Romney believes that Right-to-Work legislation is the appropriate course for states, and he will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to encourage more states to move in that direction. (p109)
As president, Mitt Romney will send Congress a bill prohibiting the use of mandatory union dues for political purposes. (p111)
The United States needs to attract and retain job creators from wherever they come. (p127)
As has long been our American tradition, we should encourage the world’s innovators, inventors, and pioneers to immigrate to the United States and we should encourage those we train to settle and create jobs here. (p128)
As president, Mitt Romney will also work to establish a policy that staples a green card to the diploma of every eligible student visa holder who graduates from one of our universities with an advanced degree in math, science, or engineering. (p128)
To return the United States to the path of fiscal discipline, America must cut its government spending, cap that spending at a sustainable level, and pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. (p141)
As president, [Mitt Romney's] number one priority—and numbers two and three as well—will be to turn around the economy to enable it to create jobs. Where President Obama has placed his trust in the Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor and the Department of Energy and the rest of the vast federal bureaucracy, Mitt Romney will place his trust in the individual initiatives of the millions of Americans who are striving mightily to reach their full potential and to live the American dream. (p152)
A rousing finale. These are extensive extracts, but I wanted to give a proper flavour of the pamphlet at its best - statements of principle and simple, clear and often concrete proposals.
But there are the other bits. Extract 1 (see references above) continues:
It [the federal government] needs to be pared back and redirected. Instead of threatening and stifling enterprise, it must encourage investment in growth and people. (p4)
Need it be redirected? Must it encourage investment? Can't the federal government just get out of the way?
Mitt Romney believes in the conservative principle that Americans, to the maximum extent possible, should be able to keep the money they earn. (p40)
'[T]o the maximum extent possible'. Talk about a loophole. This extract also included one of the most annoying tropes of the pamphlet, the use of the term 'conservative principle' for things that aren't conservative principles at all. Another example:
In the first term of a Romney administration, the rate at which agencies could impose new regulations would be capped at zero. What this means is that if an agency wishes or is required by law to issue a new regulation, it must go through a budget-like process and identify offsetting cost reductions from the existing regulatory burden. While not a panacea for the problem of over-regulation, implementation of this conservative principle would go some distance toward halting the relentless growth of the regulatory state. (p61)
I can see that this might be a useful managerial technique, but to call it a 'conservative principle' is to render the term meaningless. Almost all uses of the term 'conservative' in the pamphlet look as though they were added at the last moment, perhaps in place of 'common sense' or 'effective' or something equally apolitical.
Back to the size of government. Apparently Leviathan circa 2007 was OK:
[T]he reality is that before President Obama exploded the size of the federal government, our existing tax rates were more or less adequate to pay for the government we needed. (p39)
But at least he's firm on tearing down regulations. Isn't he? Extract 2 continues:
It [a Romney administration] will also seek to make structural changes to the federal bureaucracy that ensure economic growth remains front and center when regulatory decisions are made. (p59)
That could still be good - 'structural changes' can be made with a sledgehammer, after all. What about some low-hanging fruit:
Romney will seek to amend [Sarbanes-Oxley] to remove unreasonable burdens on mid-size companies. (p60)
Oh: 'amend', 'unreasonable', 'mid-size'. A punch, pulled.
On his first day in office, Romney will order all federal agencies to initiate repeal of any regulations issued by the Obama administration that unduly burden the economy or job creation. (p61)
As president, Mitt Romney will propose thoughtful and measured reforms of the statutory framework to preserve our environmental gains without paralyzing industry and destroying jobs. (p92)
Who could be against 'thoughtful and measured reforms'? Why, that's almost as good as 'nuanced'.
As president, Mitt Romney will seek to streamline NRC procedures so that licensing decisions for any reactors to be built with an approved design on or adjacent to an existing site are completed within two years. (p91)
Two years is much better than 26 years. But it hardly seems bold. It's not reform so much as refinement. Doing it better, rather than doing it differently - or not doing it at all.
While fracking requires regulation just like any other energy-extraction practice, the EPA in a Romney administration will not pursue overly aggressive interventions designed to discourage fracking altogether. (p95)
Not overly aggressive interventions, just appropriately aggressive interventions, one assumes, to discourage fracking altogether. Which is to say - why are the words 'overly aggressive' in there? (An editor would ask: why are the words 'pursue overly aggressive interventions designed to' in there?) Did the sentence seem too bold without them? To whom?
Surely, having alienated the unions with his freedom agenda, the Wagner Act and the NLRB have to go. Well...
As president, Romney will take the conservative approach and work with Congress to amend the outdated portions of the existing statutory framework [for labor relations], setting it on a stronger footing appropriate to contemporary conditions. (p111)
The only way this tinkering is 'conservative' is in the apolitical sense of sticking with the status quo.
The next extract tickled me with its lack of ambition in another dimension:
[T]here are many new businesses that have not yet even been dreamed up—the next Apple [incorporated 1 April 1976] or Boeing [incorporated 15 July 1916] or Coca-Cola [incorporated 1892]—but that could create countless jobs in the hands of the right entrepreneur. (p120)
The term 'conservative' almost gets used correctly here:
Mitt Romney will approach retraining policy with a conservative mindset that recognizes it as an area where the federal government is particularly ill-equipped to succeed. Retraining efforts must be founded upon a partnership that brings together the states and the private sector. The sprawling federal network of redundant bureaucracies should be dismantled and the funds used for better purposes. (p124)
But it is in the implementation that you begin to see where Romney's interest lies:
As president, Mitt Romney will immediately move to evaluate existing programs, eliminate redundancy, and consolidate funding streams. ... Once the main body of federal retraining funds has been channeled to a single program, a President Romney will push for the program to operate by issuing block grants to states and evaluating results. ... The appropriate role for the federal government is in implementing stringent accountability measures to ensure that the money is well spent rather than in controlling how it is spent. (p124-125)
Down in the nitty-gritty, re-plumbing a misfunctioning bureaucracy.
But not too fast, or too radically:
As president, Mitt Romney will not only halt this growth [in the federal workforce], but work to cut the current size of the federal workforce by 10 percent through attrition. (p143)
The number - 10% - sounds as impressive as the means - attrition - sound timid, Until you remember that in the previous paragraph he has pointed out that Obama has grown the federal 'work'force by nearly 7%. Maybe mass layoffs in a jobs pamphlet seemed wrong. But I can't help feel it's just not on the table.
Mitt Romney's number one priority may be jobs, but it seems his main interest is something else:
Reining in the federal government’s runaway spending promises to be an enormous undertaking. Taxpayer money is being used to underwrite a maze of rules, regulations, and overlapping government agencies whose complexity defies the understanding even of those who inhabit the system. Far too often, government is counterproductive and wasteful. One of Mitt Romney’s most important goals is peeling away the duplicative and dysfunctional layers of bureaucracy that prevent government from serving the people. (p143)
It all seems so, well, managerial:
As with the restructuring of any large organization, a first step in reform is acknowledging that the federal government cannot be everything to everyone. There are many functions and services that the private sector can perform better than the public sector. ... There are many other functions and services that the 50 states can manage better than Washington. We should seek out such functions and devolve power and responsibility to the level at which the taxpayers will be best served. (p144)
But the federal government isn't just a large organization, it isn't just provider of services. Indeed, that is not the most important thing about it. It's almost a statement of the principle of subsidiarity - but not quite. Or maybe I'm being too harsh.
Every government program and budget must be subjected to an intense top-down review to determine, first, whether tax dollars are being spent wisely and efficiently, and, second, whether there are more suitable alternatives to currently flawed approaches. (p144)
And here is the core of my unease: wouldn't a conservative be asking, first, "should the government be doing this at all", not whether it is doing it well?
This is not intended to be a fisking. I wanted to set out clearly the case for considering that Mr Romney is not, at heart, conservative enough for me. At the level of broad statements he often says things that resonate strongly. At the level of a bit more detail, his proposals seem a little unambitious and the flavour, the approach, the tone of the pamphlet seems a little off-key (to mix my metaphors).
I have used a lot of quotes because I know not everyone has time to read 160 pages of political pamphlet. Hopefully there is enough material in this post for those who think I am wrong to be concerned to convince me otherwise. I'm not saying these extracts present a balanced account of the contents of the pamphlet. But I think they accurately reflect its tone.
Mitt Romney says he believes in America, and believes in Americans. But I am led to wonder whether he really does.