No whining. No nagging. No teeth-gnashing. These are our springtime resolutions here at The Weekly Standard, at the beginning of the six-month general election campaign to select the next president of the United States.
Let’s stipulate once and for all that Mitt Romney isn’t a perfect candidate, that he’ll have trouble connecting with some voters, and that he’ll at times fall short of compellingly articulating a reformist conservative agenda for the 21st century. We’ll further stipulate once and for all that the Romney campaign will be at times annoyingly ham-handed, at other times exasperatingly short-sighted, and will prove in general only imperfectly capable of presenting Romney to the American people as the right man for the job. And we’ll additionally stipulate that some Romney supporters will say silly things, that some Romney surrogates will make unconvincing arguments, that various elements of the Republican party will sometimes behave stupidly, and that even some conservatives will say embarrassing things as well.
It will all be water off our duck-like back here at The Weekly Standard. We won’t worry about it, and we’ll try not even to notice it, since there’s not much we can do about it. And the good news is that, at the end of the day, it will probably all be water off the voters’ backs too. Mitt Romney will be the kind of candidate he is, he’ll run the kind of campaign he runs—and he’ll probably defeat President Obama.
Indeed, he probably has a better chance to win if he relaxes and runs as . . . himself. Most candidates aren’t very good at trying to be what they’re not. In 1996, Bob Dole said he’d try to sound like Ronald Reagan if that’s what people wanted. He picked Jack Kemp as a running mate to try to spice up the ticket and embraced a tax plan he didn’t really believe in and couldn’t explain. It didn’t work.
In 2004, John Kerry, who had voted for the Iraq war for political reasons, overdid his attacks on the Bush administration to try to compensate. He sought preemptively to neutralize concerns over liberal dovishness by “reporting for duty” at the Democratic convention, which opened the door to the Swift Boat veterans and reminders of his antiwar testimony to Congress in 1971. He lost.
Mitt Romney is an intelligent, hardworking, pragmatic problem-solver with a conservative disposition. He might as well present himself that way. It will be easier than any alternative self-presentation, and has the added advantage that it’s probably what a majority of the country wants right now. So we say to our fellow conservatives: Let Romney be Romney.
And we say to the Romney campaign: Let us conservatives be conservatives. We won’t whine or gnash our teeth over the candidate’s shortcomings. In return, we shouldn’t be whined at or hear teeth-gnashing as we articulate our more ambitious, further-reaching, and more thorough-going agenda for taking on the liberal status quo on behalf of the grand cause of limited and constitutional self-government.
As for Romney, conservatives might think of him as progressives did Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. FDR was also, like Romney, an intelligent, hardworking, pragmatic problem-solving governor. In FDR’s case, he was a pragmatist with a liberal disposition.
That’s why “movement” progressives, bold reformers, and serious critics of the status quo in 1932 longed not for FDR but for the second coming of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s two terms as president, they thought, had begun to move America into the modern era, and progressives wanted another kindred spirit to continue the job. Similarly, conservatives in 2012 longed for another movement conservative to continue the work President Reagan began.
The progressives didn’t get another Wilson, and we’re not getting another Reagan. But the progressives had so taken over the commanding intellectual and political heights of the Democratic party, and had so effectively developed an across-the-board agenda for the country, that they didn’t really need another Wilson. The pragmatic Roosevelt ended up presiding over the next stage of progressivism. Progressives were at times frustrated by FDR’s circuitous pursuit of the liberal agenda while in office. But FDR became an even more consequential liberal president than Wilson.
We understand that 2012 isn’t 1932, and that Romney isn’t Roosevelt. For one thing, FDR had in fact been a Wilsonian, while Romney wasn’t a Reaganite. It’s also the case that the waves of progressivism somehow seemed to be helped along by the currents of history, whereas the next wave of conservative reform will have to battle various forces of history.
Still, reality is conservative, so that’s an advantage for conservatives. And the Republican party has lots of impressive reformers—ranging from Mitch Daniels to Chris Christie to Bob McDonnell to Susana Martinez in statehouses, from Marco Rubio to Kelly Ayotte to Paul Ryan and many others in Congress—who can help Romney and conservatism along.
Romney could be to Reagan as—mutatis mutandis—FDR was to Wilson. But only if conservatives outside the Romney campaign can be as successful—intellectually and politically—as our progressive forebears were, both in making our case to the American people in 2012, and in governing in 2013.
So let Romney be Romney. Let conservatives be conservative. And let freedom ring!