Romney, Christie, and the Case for Strategic Ambiguity

Kim Strassel is frustrated with Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney for not offering a more direct challenge to President Obama’s arguments on taxes, etc.:

What both campaigns are in fact doing is following Democrats down the class-warfare rabbit hole. Spooked by the Democrats’ inequality theme, the Romney and Santorum campaigns are taking the narrow view, catering to the blue-collar vote, playing the class game.

In an election that needs to be about contrasts, this is point Obama. Game on for candidate Santorum, who gets to explain why his own policies for government to reward certain classes of citizens over others are any different than Mr. Obama’s. Or let’s see candidate Romney knock Mr. Obama’s proposals to further tax America’s job creators, those Mr. Romney thinks are doing “just fine.” The bigger risk is that a Republican president actually pursues these distorting economic policies, sacrificing growth.

Strassel makes a number of valuable points. Consider her critique of Romney:

Mr. Romney wants Americans to know that he is in the tank for the middle class. He’s seeking to channel their economic anger with his protectionist stances against China. He wants them to know that he’s not “for tax cuts for the rich,” because the “rich can take care of themselves.” He’s only for zeroing out taxes on capital gains for those people making less than $200,000.

Team Romney is hoping this won’t just win him voters but will also inoculate him against the rap that he is a hard-hearted millionaire. Mr. Romney doesn’t want to engage in the rich-versus-not-rich debate. He wants to be for the not-rich and move on.

From Strassel’s perspective, this is both a foolish political concession and a substantive policy error. My guess is that Romney is trying to preserve as much room for maneuver as possible. The Romney campaign has explicitly described the tax proposal Strassel critiques as a bridge to a more ambitious tax overhaul. My sense is that Romney’s chief advisors would like to move towards something like the Bush tax panel’s Growth and Investment Tax Plan

Recently, Fred Barnes made the following observation:

Newt Gingrich says Mitt Romney is a “timid Massa-chu—setts moderate.” Gingrich is two for three on his rival for the Republican presidential nomination. Romney, or at least his campaign, is a bit timid. And he is from Massachusetts. But moderate, no. Romney is more conservative than most people think and Gingrich is willing to admit.

Gingrich could just as accurately have used a variety of words besides “timid” to characterize Romney’s style and strategy. Among them: muted, cautious, understated, safe, restrained, risk-averse. But “timid” suggests cowardice and probably serves Gingrich’s political purposes better.

One only has to think back to New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s campaign in 2009 to understand what Romney may be up to. Christie acted like a mushy moderate but has governed like a hell-for-leather conservative. He figured if he revealed his intention to cut spending and taxes and neutralize the teachers’ union, he wouldn’t get elected. I suspect Romney is doing something similar.

We have no way of knowing whether or not this is true until Romney is elected. But Barnes’s remarks reminded me of a conversation I had with a political strategist some months after New Jersey’s 2009 gubernatorial election. Basically, the Christie campaign knew that their candidate would begin with impressive numbers that would progressively be ground down by an expensive, hard-hitting campaign funded by the public employee unions and other left-of-center groups. And so Christie embraced “strategic ambiguity”: say as little as possible about your own agenda while hitting hard against Corzine. Avoid polarizing rhetoric and take the fight to your opponent and highlight the deficiencies in his record. 

During Christie’s 2009 campaign, I was very critical of the candidate. I said that he was offering “wildly unrealistic promises,” citing the following passage from a highly sympathetic Matt Bai profile of Corzine:

This history probably explains why Christie has avoided offering details of a plan to bring down property taxes or reform the state’s dire finances, instead running a campaign that is almost a caricature of the modern, tax-slashing conservative pitch. He says he would repeal all the sales taxes, toll hikes and surcharges imposed by Corzine and cut income taxes as well, while at the same time somehow offering more property-tax rebates — a feat that would seem to defy the laws of economics, if not physics. Christie has also said he would decline any federal money that imposed restrictions on the state. To replace all of this revenue, Christie says he will rein in wasteful spending. Only about a fifth of New Jersey’s budget, however, goes to pay for the actual bureaucracy of government; all the rest pays for sacrosanct programs like Medicaid and school aid. As his opponents never tire of pointing out, Christie could fire every single one of the 66,000 employees in state government, and still he wouldn’t make up for the revenue he says he wants to eliminate.

Suffice it to say, Medicaid and school aid are hardly free of waste. Indeed, the fact that New Jersey spent 26 percent more than Massachusetts on a per pupil basis in 2007 yet had far poorer educational results across virtually all demographic categories, as Josh Barro found in a 2010 report, suggests otherwise. Giving local governments a toolkit to pare back spending and to improve public sector productivity has turned out to be Christie’s central mission, and he has had considerable success. 

I went on to characterize Christie’s reply to this line of argument as “bizarre”:

New Jersey has had a string of politicians, Jon Corzine the latest, who made all types of specific promises that they knew they couldn’t keep,” Christie told me. “New Jerseyans want to know what direction are you going to take the state in, what philosophy are you going to pursue. They’re not looking for specific promises that can’t be kept.” Hai-yah! Christie was turning the traditional notion of political accountability on its head: not only was it not unprincipled to make a bunch of vague campaign promises that had almost no chance of becoming reality, but in fact it was also the only truly principled thing to do, because politicians never followed through on the details of their proposals, anyway. When he gets to Trenton, Christie assured me, “We’ll get in there and make it work.”

Well, the joke was on me. 

None of this is to suggest that Romney has Christie’s mettle. He is clearly far less confrontational. That doesn’t mean, however, he’s not on to something when he eschews a super-detailed policy agenda. Consider this old video of Romney from a 1994 debate against Ted Kennedy, a video that conservatives have used against him:

Here is a crude transcript:

Let me tell ya, in my view it is not a good idea to go into a “contract” like what was organized by the Republican Party in Washington laying out a whole series of things which the party said “these are things that we’re going to do.” I think that’s a mistake. I think instead that if you want to get something done in Washington, you don’t end up picking teams with respect to Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other, entering into a contract and saying, “Okay, we’re all gonna do this,” and then of course that works. Then the other side feels that they’re the loser. But if it wins they feel like the loser. I don’t like winners and losers in Washington. I’d rather say let’s together and work together.

This might sound terribly earnest, and it will do nothing to dispel conservative doubts about Romney. Yet as a simple matter of negotiating strategy, it’s not. Gov. Christie has benefited mightily from having forged an alliance with two powerful South Jersey Democrats, who have helped him advance a number of legislative goals.  

Indeed, Romney’s father, the liberal Republican George Romney, once argued that dogmatic ideological parties with fixed programs “lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress.” The obvious rejoinder is that we may not want to “achieve progress” through the instrument of legislation and so deadlocks are a good thing. George Romney, as governor of Michigan during the 1960s, presided over a dramatic expansion of public spending that arguably set his state on a profoundly problematic course. I nevertheless think that he made a compelling and indeed prescient point: if victory for one team necessarily means defeat for the other, it will be hard to advance conservative legislative goals in the absence of truly sweeping victories on the scale of the Democratic landslide of 1964. [Apologies — I originally wrote 1968, which is absurd.] 

“Fuzziness” or strategic ambiguity might be one way for conservative leaders to move the ball forward. Set broad goals, but don’t focus on articulating a rigid policy platform. By all means develop plans and strategies, but focus on broad goals rather than details that could shackle you as circumstances change and as the composition of the legislature takes shape. 

The great disadvantage of strategic ambiguity of this kind is that it implies a loss of democratic responsiveness. How can voters choose a party without reliable ideological heuristics? More specifically, how can conservatives know that Romney will govern as a conservative if he doesn’t make pledges that will bind and constrain his actions? Romney has come to embrace certain pledges. In this regard he’s moved quite a lot since 1994. But Strassel, if I’m understanding her correctly, wants him to be more specific still. Don’t make this fuzzy arguments about middle class tax cuts as a priority. Lay out your pro-growth vision in detail. It is a respectable argument. My fear is that it will make it harder to actually implement a pro-growth program that is durable, in part because it gets buy-in from Democrats. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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