Last night, I belatedly read Peter Suderman’s March 2012 Reason cover story on Mitt Romney. I regret having taken so long to read it. Suderman views Romney through the lens of the former Massachusetts governor’s experience as a management consultant:
At its core, the business is based on problem solving. Management consultants ask the same basic question over and over again, explains Avik Roy, a former health policy analyst at the Romney-founded firm Bain Capital and current senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute: “If you’ve got a problem, how do you then break the problem down into discrete parts that we can then empirically address?” The job requires narrowing down mountains of data into a few key metrics, then feeding the information back to the client in executive-friendly formats such as PowerPoint slide shows, colorful pie charts, PDFs splattered with bullet points, historical line graphs, and so on.
Clients come into the process with a problem-solving challenge of their own: figuring out what they really want. Often, Roy says, that turns out to be “political legitimacy and blame dispersion for unpopular decisions.” Solving that problem requires a certain diplomatic sensitivity as well as a judgment-free willingness to roll with the punches. “This is a client-oriented business, so you need to be client-oriented,” Roy explains, which means ensuring that the final product isn’t too upsetting. “You want them to be satisfied with the output.”
So how should we understand Romney? Is he severely conservative, as he suggested at CPAC? Is he a progressive, as he told audiences during his 2002 gubernatorial race? Suderman concludes that Romney is not very ideological in his thinking at all. Rather, he has recognized that politics is also a “client-oriented business,” and that the clients he has to win over are the Republican primary electorate, right-leaning donors, the Republican base in the general election, and, one might add, the narrow sliver of persuadable voters that stand between him and victory in November:
In this, his second primary campaign, the problem that consultant Romney has chosen to solve is not the Medicare crisis, the federal debt burden, or sluggish economic growth. Instead, it is how to appeal to a Republican Party torn between Tea Party activists and Beltway moderates. Romney’s insistence on having it both ways at every opportunity reveals not just his own incoherence but a party with irreconcilable goals: a leaner federal government that cuts no major programs, a balanced budget with a beefed-up defense budget, entitlements that are reformed and reduced but never cut or changed. What does Mitt Romney believe? Like the PDF says, he believes in America—and anything America wants him to believe.
By this standard, Romney has actually been very successful. What remains to be seen is if the mission of bringing reluctant Republicans onside is compatible with the goals of (a) winning a general election and, assuming he pulls off (a), (b) addressing the underlying fiscal challenges facing the federal government.
My own view is that it is possible to reconcile these goals, but that it is much easier to do so if the Republican candidate in question has already established credibility with conservative voters. Like Ross Douthat, among others, I am increasingly convinced that had Romney been willing to reject certain aspects of his Massachusetts universal coverage law, he might have been in a better position to embrace policies that are both conservative and populist.