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Mitt's Makeover: Channeling Reagan for 2012 Run

5 years ago
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Mitt Romney is running for president of the United States, again. The former Massachusetts governor doesn't say it quite that way. He merely states that he won't "close that door," adding that he isn't yet ready to walk through it, either. But there's only one plausible reason why a wealthy and happy family guy -- and Romney is both -- would undertake all the speeches, interviews, and fundraising for fellow Republicans that Romney is doing. He has unfinished business in politics. To put it bluntly, Mitt Romney does not want to follow in the footsteps of his father, George Romney, another governor-turned-unsuccessful presidential candidate. He wants to be the incarnation of Ronald Reagan.

Just this weekend, Romney appeared at the GOP state convention in Richmond, VA, made a Sunday morning appearance on Fox News, and gave a dozen interviews on the Sonia Sotomayor nomination in which he urged Republicans to show respect and civility. And on Monday, he delivered the keynote address for this month's edition of The Heritage Foundation's "Leadership for America" lecture series, held in an auditorium of the United States Navy Memorial. I caught up with him there.
The newsworthy sound bites from the event, such as they were, involved federal spending priorities. Not surprisingly, Romney thinks the Democratic Congress and the Democratic administration are spending too much on things like the General Motors bailout, and too little on missile defense and military modernization. As a guy who grew up in Detroit -- his father once headed American Motors -- Romney expressed appropriate remorse over GM's impending bankruptcy, while arguing in his speech and brief Q & A with reporters afterward that the government blew it when it tossed untold billions at GM -- only to see the iconic car company declare bankruptcy anyway.
Foreign policy was the actual subject of Romney's address at the Navy Memorial. He delivered a workmanlike explication of America's military rivals in the world, ranging from China to the worldwide network of jihadists and terrorists, while maintaining that spending 3 percent of America's gross domestic product on military defense, which seems to be where President Obama and the Democratic Congress are heading, is too little. Romney singled out missile defense, an idea first proposed by President Reagan in 1983.
Reagan called it the Strategic Defense Initiative; jeering liberals immediately dubbed it "Star Wars." Liberal Democrats considered the technology fanciful and dismissed the whole idea as destabilizing. If it worked, it might prompt the Soviets to have a hair-trigger on their nuclear arsenal. This criticism was proven wrong. SDI helped persuade the Soviets to throw in the towel on the arms race -- and even to end the Cold War.
Much has changed in the ensuing two-and-a-half decades. For one thing, SDI's technology has shown promise. Also, as Romney pointed out, the United States now faces the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea, a regime headed by a dictator with such little regard for human life that he starves his own people. Pakistan now has the atomic bomb -- and a dysfunctional government -- and Iran wants one. In other words, this might be a time to step up SDI spending, not cut it, as Obama's budget contemplates.
"I know the liberals have opposed missile defense ever since Ronald Reagan came up with it," Romney said in his Monday talk. "But this is too big an issue for ideology or politics to prevail over national security."
That is a point well taken -- or, at least, it should be. So what are we to make of the 2009 version of Mitt Romney? For starters, he looks and sounds exactly like the old version. He's still eerily handsome, poised, and well-groomed, if a bit robotic. (Two quick comments on that. First, former Nixon aide Roger Stone quipped to me last year that Romney was actually an android created in a Disney studio. Second, when Time magazine released its list of the world's most influential 100 people a month ago, Sarah Palin made the roll, but Romney didn't. "Was that the issue on the most beautiful people or the most influential people?" Romney responded. Romney is such a square he might have figured that Palin would mistake his dig for a compliment. She didn't: Her people produced a video -- with her assistance -- called "There's a bore in the woods," borrowed from a mid-1980s Reagan campaign ad.)
Speaking of which, Reagan figures heavily in the narrative Romney has created to justify his presidential ambitions. It has proven a difficult example to live up to, however. In his formative political years, Mitt Romney was a liberal Massachusetts Republican who didn't owe his political fortunes to Reagan, wasn't associated with him, and, as far as anyone knows, never even voted for him.
And yet, his Monday speech, like his entire 2008 campaign, was peppered with Reagan references. Most of these were appropriate enough, as when he quoted Reagan as noting that of the four wars involving the United States in his lifetime, "none happened because America was too strong." It's a line Romney has used for three years now, but Reagan wouldn't have minded: The Gipper was fond of repetition, too. And Romney's clear-eyed, but not wild-eyed, view of the dangers lurking in the world is certainly reminiscent of Reagan.
Unlike Romney, however, Reagan was a long-time national figure who, by the time he was elected president, was the unquestioned leader of the conservative movement. Reagan did not pattern himself after anyone else (with the possible exception, paradoxically, of Franklin Roosevelt) or tailor his views or image for the times. Reagan waited for national public opinion to catch up with him, which it finally did in 1980.
As president, the secret to Reagan's success wasn't his consistency; it was his practicality. This was a lesson lost to Reagan's critics as well as his loyalists. In his own White House, the battle cry of conservative purists was "Let Reagan be Reagan." This slogan had the unintended effect of underestimating Reagan's talent, and what it came to symbolize has been the downfall of more than one would-be Reagan imitator. In 2008, Mitt Romney, was one of those candidates who fell into the trap of trying to emulate Reagan rather than rely on his own (considerable) talents. While campaigning in Florida in August 2007, Romney was asked to rate himself on a scale of conservatism from one to 10 -- with Reagan being a 10. "Probably a 10 as well," he replied. "I'm tying to think in what places we would differ." And on Jan. 30, 2008, at the debate at the Reagan Library, Romney stated flatly, "Reagan would endorse my candidacy."
Actually, it's unlikely Reagan would have endorsed Romney in a GOP primary. But Romney would have been a curious choice for Reagan anyway. Romney won the Massachusetts governorship as a pro-choice moderate; and during a senatorial race against Edward M. Kennedy in the mid-1990s, he stated in response to Kennedy's jibes: "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."
Obviously, running a nationwide campaign in 2008, Romney had to modulate this kind of rhetoric. But in trying to remake himself into a Reagan clone, Romney went too far -- so far that he hurt his own campaign.
One example came when Hillary Clinton unveiled her second attempt at health care reform. Her initial try came as First Lady, when the solution devised by a White House task force she chaired was such a non-starter that even Bill Clinton walked away from it. So how did Mitt Romney, who almost single-handedly enacted universal health care in Massachusetts, handle it? First let me tell you what I expected him to say.
Senator Clinton, welcome back to the debate. I like some of your ideas. They sound familiar. They are what we did in Massachusetts when I was governor. The Democratic Legislature fought us, but we prevailed, because even Democrats could see that the answer to this riddle is that we have to coerce young, healthy workers to buy insurance. The reason? Because most of them are healthy and the insurance pools need their premiums. I notice also that some 22 states have copied us -- many of them blue states, and I'm flattered you did, too. Better late than never.
Or something to that effect. But what did Romney actually say? He dismissed her plan as "Hillary-Care," sort of implying it was socialized medicine. He didn't mention what he'd done as governor. In the end, this kind of cookie cutter, more Reagan-than-Reagan conservatism made Romney seem disingenuous.
But Ronald Reagan got another chance, and it looks like Romney will, too. There is an obvious rationale to his candidacy now that was lacking in 2007 and 2008. I'm referring to the sorry state of the U.S. economy, and the Democrats' notion that we can simply borrow our way to prosperity. Romney's rich experience as a successful businessman who turned companies around, rescued the 2002 Olympics, and made the Commonwealth of Massachusetts solvent, and yes, brought his state universal health insurance, would suit him well in this environment. If he'd talk about it. And so, with all due respect to the remaining Reaganauts out there, I have a modest proposal to make with respect to Romney's handlers, speechwriters, and campaign ad guys in 2012:
Let Mitt be Mitt.

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