Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Is Romney This Cycle’s Hillary Clinton?

Peter Beinart thinks that Mitt Romney is to the current Republican primary electorate what Hillary Clinton was to the 2008 Democratic primary electorate:
“Mitt Romney is this cycle’s Hillary Clinton because health care is this cycle’s Iraq. Like Clinton, Romney is competent and polished and has a powerful political machine. But his inability to draw a sharp contrast with a hated president on the issue that makes his party hate that president most is sucking the passion from his campaign.”
Beinart invokes the Clinton-Romney comparison primarily as a tool of political handicapping. He predicts that Romney’s going to lose the Republican presidential nomination for the same reason that Hillary lost the Democratic nomination in 2008.  Like Clinton's Senate vote authorizing George W. Bush to prosecute the Iraq war, Romney’s association with RomneyCare gets in the way of his party base's determination to demonize an unpopular president from the other party.

Maybe so. But it’s hard to see why the Romney-Clinton comparison makes Beinart so sure that Romney’s political goose is cooked. (The title of his piece is "Why Mitt Romney Can't Win.")  Yes, Clinton’s Iraq vote made it harder for her to secure the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. But she very nearly secured it anyway against a candidate who’d opposed the Iraq war from the start. So while there’s no gainsaying that RomneyCare presents Romney with a formidable political problem in this election cycle, it needn’t be an insuperable one. Only time will tell.

Let’s follow the Clinton-Romney parallel a little further than Beinart does anyway because it tells us something noteworthy about the social psychology of the party bases. Notice that Clinton paid, and Romney is now paying, a steep political price for an ideological transgression that exists, if at all, only in hindsight. When she cast it in the fall of 2002, Clinton’s Senate vote authorizing the Bush administration to prosecute the Iraq war put her well within the ideological mainstream of the Democratic Party and the liberal community. Democratic politicians, especially those with presidential aspirations, weren’t about to make the same political mistake they’d made by opposing the Gulf war in 1990-91. And doctrinaire liberals tolerated a little well-placed hawkishness in Democratic politicians because they’d cottoned to the idea of humanitarian military intervention in connection with Bosnia and Kosovo.

You can say substantially similar things about Romney. When he affixed his gubernatorial signature to RomneyCare, he thought he was staking a claim to a future Republican presidential nomination. With a stroke of his pen, he thought he’d established himself as a cutting-edge conservative, conversant in advanced thinking coming out of the best right-wing think tanks. The individual mandate that RomneyCare shares with ObamaCare was the cornerstone of a longstanding conservative project of bringing market forces to bear on escalating health care costs. 

Fate, however, was cruel to each candidate by shifting the ideological ground beneath their feet. By the time Clinton was ready to run for president, the ideological insurgency first associated with Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy in 2004, and then nurtured by widening opposition to the Bush presidency in general and the Iraq war in particular after his reelection, had seized hold of the Democratic base. Suddenly, in liberal circles the Iraq war wasn’t just a regrettable lapse in judgment, but a politically illegitimate usurpation on the part of the Bush administration that excited extreme indignation. That meant that any democratic politician who’d ever supported the war owed the Democratic base an abject apology. Some born-again doves, like John Edwards, laid it on thick. Clinton wouldn’t.

Similarly, between this election cycle and the last one, the Tea Party had seized control of the Republican base, animated by the thought that ObamaCare wasn’t just bad public policy, but an inexcusable assault of individual liberty and state sovereignty. The Republican base suddenly expected Romney to be ashamed of the very thing that he once thought singled him out as presidential material. Having already taken an ideological mulligan on abortion, Romney isn’t about to apologize again.

That brings us to yet another thing that Clinton and Romney have in common. They’ve both declined to pull their weight in the Orwellian enterprise of enabling liberal and conservative ideologues to pretend that they’ve always believed what they now profess.

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