Commentary

Romney for Panderer-in-Chief?

Memo to the Rick Perry campaign: If your guy can’t win an exchange with Mitt Flippin’ Romney over who’s stuck to principle more consistently, his debating skills need serious work.

That’s what happened at Sept. 22’s Republican debate in Orlando. After deflating Perry with a “nice try,” Romney brazenly proclaimed, “One reason to elect me is that I know what I stand for, I’ve written it down. Words have meaning.”

“I’ve written it down” — I love that. I’m put in mind of the great New Yorker cartoon, featuring a Washington bigwig behind an enormous desk, the Capitol looming through his office window. “I keep my core beliefs written on the palm of my hand for easy reference,” he tells his visitor.

[I]f there’s any case to be made for Romney, it’s that he’s a full-spectrum panderer.”

With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie out and Perry floundering, it’s looking ever more likely that the alternative to President Obama will be a candidate who needs a cheat sheet to remember his core beliefs.

Taking to heart the Stoic principle that we shouldn’t lament what we can’t control, I’m going to try to convince you — and myself — that things could be worse.

In their 2007 editorial endorsing Romney, National Review argued — hilariously — that the former Massachusetts governor was a “full-spectrum conservative.”

But if there’s any case to be made for Romney, it’s that he’s a full-spectrum panderer. Paradoxically, Romney’s faults — his incessant flip-flopping and desperate quest for approval — might make him a less-dangerous-than-average president.

True, from a limited-government perspective, Romney’s stated platform is pretty awful. You can judge a candidate’s budget-cutting bona fides by the specificity of his proposed cuts.

Romney’s only gotten specific on what he’ll spend. He wants 100,000 new troops and a minimum of 4 percent of GDP lavished on our already outsized military.

On the campaign trail, Romney has savaged Obama’s proposed Medicare cuts — the sign “keep your hands off our Medicare” is “absolutely right,” he insists — and he has attacked Perry for questioning the constitutionality of Social Security.

The good news, I suppose, is that there is no better reason to take Romney at his word here than there is anywhere else.

Romney’s strategically timed ideological conversions are well-known. On the road to the presidency, he’s had convenient epiphanies about stem-cells, gay rights and immigration, and gone from being a staunch gun-controller to, in 2007, buying a lifetime NRA membership and awkwardly bragging about blasting rabbits with a single-shot .22 rifle (do those come with laser sights?).

But, having suffered through two ideologically charged presidencies in a row, to many Americans the poll-tested pandering of the Clinton era doesn’t look so bad by comparison.

Our 42nd president wanted national health care, but the country wanted welfare reform and prosperous normalcy — and the country got what it wanted.

Before this year, no one would have mistaken House Speaker John Boehner for a Tea Partier. Yet the political facts on the ground have forced him into a more confrontational posture than he’d otherwise favor.

Given how far the Republican Party and the electorate as a whole have shifted toward distrust of big government and crony capitalism, a pliable president, desperate for approval, might be restrained from doing too much harm, and even forced to do some good.

If Romney becomes president, the governor who pioneered the individual mandate will be pressured to push its repeal.

As David Brooks recently argued, “The strongest case for Romney is that he’s nobody’s idea of a savior.” He’s right: no one could possibly build a cult of personality around a candidate who’s so transparently insincere.

These aren’t inspiring reasons for a Romney candidacy, but, over the last decade, Americans may have gotten their fill of presidential inspiration.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.