Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mitt's beef with his brethren

Can a Republican win the '08 presidential nomination by assailing his own party?

Mitt Romney apparently seems willing to take that gamble. And it would appear to be a risky tactic.

Despite the fact that the Republican "brand" is at low ebb nationally, and despite the fact that the lame-duck Republican president has been written off as an irredeemable failure by roughly 70 percent of the American public, GOP loyalists would prefer not to dwell on their past errors, or question their leader's wisdom; rather, they'd prefer that their '08 candidates simply serve up heapings of red meat about defeat-o-crat Democrats and the perceived evils of Hillary.

But Romney, perhaps with an eye on the Bush-weary independent voters who will ultimately swing the general elections, is now taking a different route. In a new national TV ad, in a weekend speech, and in a widely-circulated "open letter" to fellow Republicans, he has decided (at least for now) to position himself as the "outsider" and "reformer" who will clean up the failed Washington Republican establishment. And the riskiest aspect of this move is his subliminal skewering of the Decider himself.

Among other things, he says in his letter that "government" in Washington, in defiance of conservative principles, has been "spending too much money...If we're going to change Washington, Republicans have to put our own house in order. We can't be like Democrats - a party of big spending...We have to remember who we are. We are not Big Government Republicans."

That Romney pitch, about returning the party to its core values, is aimed at the sizeable number of disaffected Republican conservatives who have long been upset by the runaway government spending of the Bush era. It has long been documented that the former Republican Congress, in cahoots with Bush, jacked up federal spending to heights not recorded since the Democratic era of Lyndon Johnson; indeed, Bush in those years never vetoed a spending bill. This past weekend, in fact, a budget specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation complained that the federal budget under Bush has grown by seven percent a year - twice the growth rate under Bill Clinton.

Romney, in a weekend speech to Republicans in Michigan, tiptoed even closer to assailing Bush directly. He said that true Republicans know "how to run a tight ship" - and that the handling of Katrina was the opposite. In his words, "the Katrina cleanup didn't look like the Republicans were in charge. I want to bring accountability back to Washington." (Implication: the Bush team is inept, and unaccountable.)

In his speech, Romney did laud Bush briefly, contending that the president has kept America safe since 9/11, while "restoring personal integrity and dignity to the White House" (I'm not sure that swing voters would buy the line about integriy and dignity, but the GOP base probably would). His praise for Bush, however, was quite measured, when compared to his Bush critique at the Iowa straw poll back in August, when he was road-testing his message about changing Washington.

At that Iowa event, he lauded Bush about keeping America safe, about championing the Patriot Act, about arresting terrorists, about pushing for domestic surveillance, and he implied that people were unfairly picking on Bush in general: "I know it's gotten popular in the media and other places to be critical of the president. There's no one that's perfect." Romney isn't talking that way now.

He's also going after the Republicans in Congress (as if those folks don't have enough problems). His open letter includes a blunt reference to the moral lapses of certain unnamed Republicans, presumably Larry Craig (wide stance), David Vitter (hookers), and the now-departed Mark Foley (underage boys). His line in the letter: "We can't have ethical standards that are a punch-line for Jay Leno." This is probably solid territory for Romney, since he is reputed to be squeaky clean on the morality front. But in his Michigan speech this past weekend, he pushed the point even further, by taking implicit aim at Bush: "The standard for high ethical conduct has to start at the very top."

Also, in the Michigan speech, Romney also broadened his ethical critique to include what he dismissively called "earmark Republicans," which perhaps can be taken as a reference to the party's longest-serving senator, earmark king Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose house was recently raided by the FBI in connection with a federal corruption probe.

It's hard to gauge Romney's true position in the unusually fluid GOP race - he is faring decently in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls, but poorly in the national polls - so perhaps he feels the need to roll the dice. And his decision to call himself a "change Republican" is certainly a gamble.

In his Iowa straw poll speech in August, he invoked the change word five times in the first minute. In his current open letter, he invokes the word six times in the last three paragraphs. But his potential problem is obvious: Change is generally a word employed by Democrats (especially in this election cycle); the Republican diehards might not be comfortable hearing that word from one of their own, since it implies that the fault of our current ills lies not just with the Democrats, but with themselves. And despite all of Romney's ardent wooing - particularly his rightward journey on social issues - he may be pitching the party loyalists a daring argument that they simply do not want to hear.


Public officials, saying and doing foolish things:

The runner up this morning is President Bush, who is continuing his quest to lead his party over the cliff, this time by opposing the bipartisan bill to expand the state health insurance program for children. It's rarely a political winner to be viewed as "against children," but he's apparently doing his best to make life tougher for the congressional Republican moderates who have to run again in 2008.

The SCHIP expansion is just part of the larger congressional spending package that Bush doesn't like; it exceeds his requests by $22 billion. Yesterday, while speaking to business leaders, the born-again fiscal conservative assailed the Democratic Congress for its spending priorities: "Some in Congress will tell you that $22 billion is not a lot of money. As business leaders, you know better."

In other words, Bush views an extra $22 billion for primarily domestic needs as "a lot of money." But here's a way to put the figure in perspective:

That's roughly the same amount of money that Bush is spending in Iraq...every two months.

Nevertheless, today's foolish award goes to Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who insisted at Columbia University yesterday that there is no gay community in his country. ("I don't know who's told you we have it.") This is why it was better to err on the side of free speech and allow the guy to talk. What better way to expose his delusions, than in the open marketplace of ideas?