The problem with nominating Mitt Romney is and has always been that it’s choosing to play on defense.
Romney is not a small-government, limited-government conservative. He will not go on offense against the dangerous principles on which government is being conducted today in the United States. This is thought by many to be behind his “electability,” but it makes him the most defensive of potential Republican candidates.
RomneyCare is only one example of Romney’s comfort with big government, but it’s an important one. Romney has continued to defend the principle of an absolute purchase mandate, levied on anyone with an income and a pulse. The health “insurance” purchase mandate is not like the mandate for driver’s insurance, because citizens can opt out of being drivers. But avoiding the health-insurance purchase mandate of RomneyCare requires opting out of life (or leaving Massachusetts).
Purchase mandates are not so much a states’ prerogatives issue as an issue of the principles controlling the purpose and scope of government. RomneyCare is wrong for Massachusetts because it’s bad government. Of course people in Massachusetts can choose to levy such a mandate if they want, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. It puts government in an intrusive role that not only invites but demands a spiraling level of intrusion, one that pits citizen against citizen, rent-seekers against taxpayers, and government against liberty.
The US federal government is engaged today in far too many things that promote all three of these conflicts. Advocacy groups leverage the EPA to prevent business activities that would generate thousands of jobs. Both unions and big businesses lobby incessantly for regulations and special laws that will ensure they don’t have to face the consequences of unprofitability. Yet very often, the conditions that make them unprofitable are themselves produced by regulation, rather than market factors. These sources of cost to the public purse go increasingly uncriticized; the fiscal disaster, we are told, can only be averted by taking more from the taxpayers and further modifying the taxpayers’ behavior.
Health care is, as always, a prime example of this kind of interplay. Once the premise of public funding for health care is established, everything anyone does becomes a cost issue for the public treasury. There are some protected categories of behavior, like those that lead to STDs and AIDS, but constituencies arise for controlling people’s eating habits and fertility, and for proclaiming everything under the sun – including the sun itself – to be a public health hazard. The urgent necessity of controlling what people do is amplified by the centralized, spiraling cost of health-care disbursements. Few forms of government-brokered activism are as inimical to individual liberty.
Government – not social or economic dynamics – is now the primary means of pitting citizen against citizen. This needs to change: the scope and independence of federal agencies and the regulatory impulse need to be dramatically reined in. We can’t afford for the federal government to continue on the premise of the last 80 years. The basic premise must change.
This doesn’t mean that the changes need to be abrupt, but they do need to be scheduled and prosecuted with determination. Only someone who believes that, however, will be willing to make the case, and face down the multifarious opposition to reducing the footprint of government on principle. Reduction on principle means that government can’t come back in 10 years and start regulating again things that it was ordered not to regulate in 2013 (or tighten regulations that were loosened). It means that the apparatus for reclaiming an over-regulatory posture won’t even be there in 10 years.
Romney is not the man who will do this. He has coexisted comfortably with the regulatory premise throughout his public life – even during his years at Bain Capital. He sees a need to change some regulations on the margin, but he is not an advocate of fundamentally changing the premise on which we now regulate ourselves.
Although it’s not the point of this post, I will suggest, for comparison, what a truly deregulatory posture might look like. Besides eliminating, or at least drastically reducing, the size and charter of the EPA and other federal agencies, a key shift in principle would be requiring that Congress positively approve every new regulation. We already have the condition in which Congress sets parameters for the regulatory charters of the various agencies – and that is what has gotten us to the current environment of wild, often incoherent overregulation. It is a good principle to start with, that whatever forms of regulation Congress doesn’t have time to attend to directly, we don’t need anyway.
Much reduction in the footprint of regulation would flow from that. I also like Rick Perry’s proposal to reduce the amount of time Congress spends in session. It is shifts in principle like this that will change the basis of government. Changing that basis is our only hope for arresting the fiscal freight train headed for the mother of all wrecks. But Romney is not the candidate who will push for the changes we need.
That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be better than Obama. He would. But electing Romney will mean at least four more years of playing on defense: trying to mitigate the score being racked up by the other side, rather than playing on offense to score touchdowns for liberty and smaller government. That’s why so many of the voters can’t get excited about Romney. They know we need someone to lead us in a direction of fundamental change – a shift in the principle of government, back toward the limited-government idea of the Founders, plus a very big reduction in its footprint – and they know Romney won’t do that.
I would put the other candidates (with Ron Paul as an outlier) in this order, as to how much they would push for fundamental change: Perry, Gingrich, Santorum. All three would go further than Romney would in this regard. If any of these candidates got a Republican-controlled Congress, we could expect some amount of actual reduction in the persistent basis for regulation.
Romney’s approach would be to tinker with it on the margins. I will vote for Romney if he’s the choice, just as I will vote for any of the other three. But what we need is a small-government president who will go on offense. Defense will only stave off the eventual loss. And as we see with the Republican apathy over Romney, in politics – unlike football – defense isn’t exciting or motivational.