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More Conservative Than You Think

The new Mitt Romney.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By FRED BARNES
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Salem, N.H.

Photo of Mitt Romney

Newt Gingrich says Mitt Romney is a “timid Massa-chu---setts moderate.” Gingrich is two for three on his rival for the Republican presidential nomination. Romney, or at least his campaign, is a bit timid. And he is from Massachusetts. But moderate, no. Romney is more conservative than most people think and Gingrich is willing to admit.

Gingrich could just as accurately have used a variety of words besides “timid” to characterize Romney’s style and strategy. Among them: muted, cautious, understated, safe, restrained, risk-averse. But “timid” suggests cowardice and probably serves Gingrich’s political purposes better.

One only has to think back to New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s campaign in 2009 to understand what Romney may be up to. Christie acted like a mushy moderate but has governed like a hell-for-leather conservative. He figured if he revealed his intention to cut spending and taxes and neutralize the teachers’ union, he wouldn’t get elected. I suspect Romney is doing something similar.

We won’t know for certain unless Romney is elected president. But in recent weeks, he’s begun to sound more conservative. Unlike most of his Republican opponents, Romney has declined to offer a specific plan for reforming the tax code. At a town hall gathering last week in Salem, however, he talked up the idea of simplifying the system, broadening the tax base, and slashing tax rates—alas, tax reform at the idea stage.

For now, he’s sticking to his modest plan featuring tax cuts for the middle class. He would wipe out taxes on capital gains, dividends, and savings for those earning less than $200,000. He says those making more are doing fine and don’t need fresh tax breaks. But his next step, as president, would be to extend a version of that tax cut to the well-to-do to spur investment, economic growth, and job creation. 

On four of the biggest issues in 2012, Romney is anything but moderate—or timid. He gets no special credit for advocating repeal of Obamacare. That’s Republican dogma. But he’s been the most specific among the GOP presidential candidates in backing the Ryan budget in all its parts, including its remake of Medicare. It was House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s plan that Gingrich zinged as “right wing social engineering” before reversing himself under duress.

When Romney announced in November his own proposal for cutting spending and reforming Medicare and Social Security, Ryan was thrilled. “Look at what he put out!” he told Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. “This is a great development.” Ryan said Romney’s package of spending cuts “tracks perfectly with the House budget,” which Ryan had drafted.

Romney preceded Ryan in adding a twist to the overhaul of Medicare: Under a new “premium support” system in which seniors would choose among health insurance plans, one option would be the current Medicare program. In December, this was included in the bipartisan plan sponsored by Ryan and Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.

“On entitlements, I think Romney’s plan is easily the best one offered by a Republican candidate,” said Yuval Levin of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “It’s a very smart, very well-thought-out, and very conservative approach.”

When he raises “premium support” and Social Security reform in town hall appearances, Romney has a way of making bold changes sound like tweaks. But in Salem, he said, almost as an afterthought, his proposal would “save Medicare and Social Security .  .  . forever.”

Like Ryan, Romney would not reduce defense spending. He wants to bolster the Army with 100,000 more troops and increase the Navy’s shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 per year. In a speech at the Citadel in October, Romney promised to “prioritize the full deployment of a multilayered national ballistic missile defense system.” And in Iowa he said he would instruct the Pentagon to prepare “credible military options” to destroy Iran’s facilities for building nuclear weapons.

On immigration, Romney has made it a point in the nationally televised debates to criticize Gingrich’s idea of letting illegal immigrants stay in America if they’ve lived here for decades and Rick Perry’s support for allowing college students here unlawfully to pay tuition at the reduced rate for state residents. That, too, puts Romney in the conservative camp.

To sum up, he’s at least as conservative as his GOP rivals on jettisoning Obamacare and more conservative than some on entitlements, national security, and immigration. He’s no match for Gingrich on taxes, but that’s about it. Overall, he’s to the right of Gingrich.

Romney wasn’t always there. In 1994, he ran as a liberal Republican against Senator Ted Kennedy. By New England standards, he was a conservative governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, erasing a $3 billion deficit, cutting taxes, and aggressively opposing gay marriage. He’s best remembered, though, for his misbegotten health care program, Romneycare.

Today he’s talking like a full-fledged conservative. Yet there’s a legitimate question about whether his conservatism is deeply rooted or merely a campaign conversion that began with his first presidential bid in 2008. For the time being, that’s unknowable.

But I’ve been impressed by Romney’s ability to win the endorsement of one of New Hampshire’s toughest and least compromising conservatives, Jennifer Horn. A former talk radio host, she runs a grassroots organization, We the People.

Horn initially backed Tim Pawlenty and traveled to Ames, Iowa, to participate in the presidential straw vote in August. Pawlenty lost and dropped out the next day. Hours later, Horn got a call from Romney as she was going through the security line at the Des Moines airport to fly home. He wanted her support.

She held back. Her organization staged a series of events for individual candidates at which she and audience members asked questions. Romney came in December. “He hit every mark that day,” she told me. “He had a heart for America and wrapped that around his lifelong fiscal conservatism. I was convinced he would lead from the right.” She endorsed him a few days before Christmas, four months after his call to her.

Horn has no illusions about Romney. He’s neither a movement conservative nor an ideological conservative. He’s a pragmatist for whom conservatism makes the most sense. That it helps him politically no doubt makes sense, too.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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