Ramesh Ponnuru’s Mitt Romney Endorsement

by Reihan Salam

My favorite part of Ramesh Ponnuru’s endorsement of Mitt Romney is his careful discussion of the potential ideological implications of a Romney presidential win, which have not been very well understood:

The Republican party now features a remarkable degree of programmatic consensus. The entire field wants to cut corporate tax rates, convert Medicaid into block grants, and (the asterisk candidacy of Gary Johnson aside) protect unborn human life. Even Jon Huntsman, the candidate positioned farthest left in the field, favors these policies. None of them enjoyed such uniform support in previous primaries, and some of them had none.

When the candidates differ, it is typically on issues that are unlikely to matter during the next presidency. Representative Bachmann may, unlike some of the others, wish to abolish the EPA, but no conceivable Congress within the next eight years will grant her wish.

The narrowness of the candidates’ differences on pertinent issues militates in favor of picking the one who can best implement the sensible agenda they largely share. It also reduces conservatives’ need to worry about candidates’ sincerity. If President Romney were to do an about-face on carbon caps, the right to life, or taxes, he would be going to war with the vast majority of his party. The fact that conservatives do not regard him as the leader of their movement tightens this constraint on him. A Republican president with more capital among conservatives would be able to deplete it.

Romney’s public positions and his political interests both suggest he would govern as a conservative, albeit a cautious one. Many conservatives want more than that from a president, more than executive experience and public agreement with them on the issues. They want a president who shares their convictions and instincts, who will actively seek occasions to advance their views, and who will take political risks for them. They are right to want these things, for the most part, and there is no guarantee Romney will deliver them.

On the other hand, there is also something to be said for calculation in a politician. Successful political leaders need to have a realistic sense of what public opinion, and the political system, will bear, a sense cultivated by the habit of calculation. And there is a limit to how much political risk conservatives should want a president allied to them to take. Most of the time conservative activists should be trying to reduce the risks of advancing conservative initiatives rather than to goad elected officials to political recklessness. Conservatives should, that is, point the way for ambitious politicians to advance good ideas that can command the support of a national center-right majority.

Ashley Parker of the New York Times makes note of Ramesh’s endorsement.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.