Mitt Romney conferred with GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, including Representative Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman. In an interview with National Review Online, Romney praised Ryan’s budget, and hinted that if he wins the nomination, he will work closely with the Wisconsin legislator to craft a unified fiscal agenda with congressional Republicans.
“We’re very much inclined in the same direction,” Romney says. “We spoke together about my plans on Medicare, for instance, and ultimately the Wyden-Ryan bill is very similar, if not identical, to what I proposed some time ago. We all have ideas about what should be done with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — and we’re on the same page on those issues.”
“We want to solve our long-term balance-sheet problem, and by that I mean Medicare and Social Security,” Romney says. “We also want to solve our deficit by getting us to a balanced budget through two things — one is spending reductions and program eliminations. And the second part of that is a pro-growth strategy, associated with tax policies that encourage economic growth.”
Romney acknowledges that his tax proposal is not identical to Ryan’s budget, but he argues that the thrust of the two documents is the same. “My policy, of course, is a little different,” Romney says. “He’s gone to the 25–10 approach,” eliminating tax brackets. “I prefer taking a 20 percent tax cut across the board on marginal rates and also eliminating the [alternative minimum tax] and the death tax. So we are similar, not identical, and we chat on a regular basis.”
Romney is confident that in a general-election campaign, his campaign advisers would work closely with congressional staffers to keep the party, broadly speaking, united, and more important, prepared for upcoming legislative battles. As a businessman and as Massachusetts governor, he says, he learned the importance of building relationships among key players, and he has carried on that approach as a presidential candidate, urging his senior team to reach out.
“My chief policy adviser, Lanhee Chen, speaks with a number of the staff members on the Hill, from both the Senate and the House, to get their perspective,” Romney says, to give one example.
Romney adds, however, that governing is about more than coordinating staffers. Another part of the equation, he says, is working closely with conservative leaders. After meeting on Thursday morning with Ryan, Romney met with Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), a tea-party favorite. Their conversation, he says, was positive, and he calls DeMint, who endorsed him during the 2008 presidential campaign, a longtime friend and a potential ally, should he win the White House.
“We gathered and chatted with several people that he had pulled together, discussing the challenges ahead, and frankly, how much is going to need to be done in the first year or so of a new administration,” Romney says. “We agreed that we’re on track to hit a Greece-like wall at some point in the future, and we talked about the urgency of taking a series of actions that ultimately eliminates the deficit and solves our balance-sheet woes.”
After the confab, DeMint told reporters that he is “excited about the possibility of [Romney’s] being our nominee,” and that the rest of the primary field should carefully weigh whether an extended scrap would be healthy for the party. “I think we all need to look at the presidential primary and encourage the candidates to do a little self-reflection,” he said. “The sooner we can make a decision, the sooner we can focus on the real problem, which is Obama.”
Turning to the primary calendar, Romney is optimistic about his chances in the Wisconsin primary, which will be held on April 3. His strong victory in the Illinois primary, he says, shows that his economy-driven campaign is connecting with midwestern conservatives. But he’s not taking anything for granted. In addition to his time with Ryan, he met on Thursday with numerous members of the state’s congressional delegation, who advised him that the political scene in Madison remains tumultuous, due to the upcoming vote on whether to recall Republican governor Scott Walker, who passed a budget-control act last year against the wishes of powerful public-sector unions.
Romney told the group of Badger State Republicans that he “fully supports” Walker and his continued efforts to balance the state’s budget. “Now, I certainly haven’t walked in his moccasins,” Romney chuckles, in terms of dealing with Wisconsin’s wild political scene. “But in terms of understanding the need to rein in the excesses, particularly in pensions and benefits for government unions, that is something which he appropriately took on.”
After Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia hold their early-April primaries, there will be a three-week gap until the next contests. Then, on April 24, five states — Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania — will hold their primaries. Romney knows that former senator Rick Santorum, his chief rival for the nomination, is already focusing heavily on his native Pennsylvania, a critical swing state.
When asked, Romney resists calling the Pennsylvania primary a must-win for Santorum. But the primary, he says, may be nearing its conclusion, since Republicans, in a variety of ways, are embracing his candidacy. “I hope that the message has already been sent,” he says. “We’ve got a strong and compelling campaign. We’re on a good track to become the nominee. And with folks like Jeb Bush coming on board, people recognize that we’re on a very compelling course.”
Indeed, when he looks at how he has drawn wide support in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, the former Bay State governor believes he is ready to compete in Pennsylvania. His message, he predicts, will resonate statewide; and in the Philadelphia suburbs, he has a not-so-secret weapon to help him on the trail: Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a popular figure among Republicans in the region.
“Governor Christie is an asset everywhere he goes, both with independents and Republicans, but also among a few Democrats,” Romney says. “His involvement in my campaign made a real difference in Illinois, and I expect it to do the same in upcoming primaries.” He’ll also be helped in the Keystone State by former governor Tom Ridge and a slew of supportive House members.
As he wages primary war, Romney is keeping an eye on another front, the Supreme Court, as it prepares to hear arguments about President Obama’s health-care law, which will complete its second year on the books today. “Clearly, if the Supreme Court strikes down Obamacare, there will be celebration in homes across America,” he says. “I believe the bill is unconstitutional, in addition to being wrongheaded. My own view is that if the Supreme Court does not [overturn the law], then we will be required to take that action if I’m president.”
Romney recognizes that health care will be a major issue in the fall campaign, and though some conservatives are wary of the health-care program he shepherded in Massachusetts, he asserts that his experiences will boost, not hurt, his chances in a general election. “I like being able to point out that I’m a person who understands health care and who understands the wisdom of the Tenth Amendment, allowing states to create or remove their own solutions, should they choose to do so, ” he says. Repealing and replacing Obamacare, he says, remains his top policy priority.
But he won’t rest his case on repeal. Should he win the nomination, Romney will offer voters a multifaceted health-care argument that includes challenging the administration on religious-liberty issues. The Obama administration, he says, by forcing religious institutions to provide health-care coverage of contraception, has been openly hostile to faith groups, and he pledges to stand with social-conservative leaders as they tangle with the president and his allies.
“There are many within this administration, and many within the liberal community, who have disdain for religious tolerance and seek to restrict it,” Romney says. “I think there are some who would prefer installing a secular society of sorts.” He calls the contraceptive mandate “one more example of an administration that’s not friendly to religious conscience and religious diversity.”
Romney also finds Obama increasingly vulnerable on energy. But it’s crucial, he says, for Republicans to discuss viable alternatives, such as increasing oil and natural-gas exploration or supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, instead of promising to lower gas prices to a specific level — a tactic favored by his fellow presidential contender Newt Gingrich. “I’m not going to put forward a proposal that has no basis in fact simply to pander to public opinion,” he says. His approach, he says, will push for drilling as well as an emphasis on eliminating burdensome regulatory policy.
But for now, the general election is months away. Santorum and Gingrich, by all reports, are committed to staying in the race. Romney tells me that he is fine with that, that he is comfortable with where things stand, that he is engaged but not worried. He believes that he will eventually win the nomination, should things continue to move as they have been. And he sees this long and drawn-out primary as a learning experience for all involved, a testing ground for the nominee.
At night, when he has a few quiet moments relaxing in his hotel room, Romney likes to read presidential biographies to take a break from the news chatter. At the moment, he’s reading two books — Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard, about the assassination of President James Garfield, and Mornings on Horseback, by David McCullough, about the young Theodore Roosevelt. “It’s about time I finally got around to reading that,” Romney says of the latter, which is a favorite among history junkies. “I always try to read two books at a time; I try to read one for fun and entertainment, for when just before I hit the bed, and the other is usually for education.”
Those books have come in handy this week as his campaign has been consumed by a kerfuffle over comments from his senior aide Eric Fehrnstrom. Fehrnstrom, in a CNN interview, referenced Etch A Sketch, a popular children’s toy, as an example of how the campaign could shake up its outlook should it win the nomination. Romney shrugs off the media buzz over the comments, including calls by several conservative pundits for him to fire his trusted adviser.
“Campaigns have different chapters, organizationally and fundraising-wise,” Romney says. “My positions are the same today as they were when I was governor. They’re the same as they were when I ran four years ago, and they’ll be the same in the general election and in my presidency.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.