Over the past few weeks, I have amused myself by betting friends that Mitt Romney will be elected president. The fun is in the shocked reaction from American liberals – and virtually all Europeans – who find the very thought of a Republican victory utterly horrifying. Even suggesting that a Romney presidency might be tolerable feels like telling Roman citizens that Alaric the Visigoth has been unfairly traduced.
If I could vote, I would – like almost everybody else in Europe – cast my ballot for Barack Obama. He was dealt a very difficult hand and he has played it reasonably well. I approve of his effort to provide universal healthcare coverage – even though the reform itself is a mess. Making the tax system more redistributive seems reasonable, given the rise in inequality. I prefer his approach to the outside world and to social issues, such as abortion. And, since I was never inspired by his "hope and change” stuff in 2008 (on the contrary), I am not disillusioned it has not worked out.
Where I depart from the liberal consensus is that I think that Romney would be a perfectly decent president.
Working out what kind of a president the Republican would be is, admittedly, not very easy. He has turned so many somersaults during the course of the election that nobody can be certain which incarnation would report for work in the Oval Office. Would it be moderate Mitt or "severely conservative” Romney?
On domestic policy, Romney has promised both to dismantle Obama’s healthcare reform and to preserve its key features. He has promised both a massive tax cut and to get serious about balancing the budget. (This circle to be squared through the removal of unspecified tax breaks.) When it comes to foreign policy, he has sometimes been a tough-talking neoconservative. At other times, particularly during the last debate, he has sounded like Obama II.
Even looking at Romney’s advisers is not much of a clue. Inevitably, his team represents an effort to build coalitions and touch bases within the Republican party. So, on foreign policy, Romney has flirted with nationalistic paleo-cons such as John Bolton. But the man he appointed to oversee his foreign policy transition team was Robert Zoellick, who is a moderate, serious-minded internationalist with vast experience. That is a hopeful sign – but not much more, since the true balance of power within the Romney team has yet to emerge.
Since neither Romney’s statements nor his advisers provide a clear guide to what sort of president he would be, we are left with three things to go on: his abilities, his character and his record. And here the evidence is encouraging.
The Republican candidate is clearly a very able man. Whatever you think of private equity, it is a very competitive business – and Romney rose to the top. He was a competent governor of Massachusetts. Among the bizarre collection of candidates that fought for the Republican nomination, Romney was clearly the most able – with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman. And, unlike Huntsman, he showed a ruthless willingness to say and do what it took to win the nomination.
My guess is that the "real Romney” (assuming such a thing exists) is a moderate. His background in business and his record as a governor do not suggest that he is a fire-breathing social conservative. On the contrary, he comes across as a traditional boardroom Republican. That is certainly how he is perceived within his own party – where the genuinely severe conservatives have long regarded their presidential candidate with suspicion.
The peculiar nature of the modern Republican party, rather than the candidate himself, is the main reason for worrying about a Romney presidency. If he were to indulge the worst instincts of his party, a President Romney would cut up America’s social safety net, push on with a reactionary social agenda and recommit to a highly militarised foreign policy that would end up with yet another war in the Middle East – this time with Iran.
Some American liberals fear that the Republicans in Congress would drag Romney towards this radical agenda. Yet the probability is that at least one half of Congress will remain in Democratic hands. And, as Obama has discovered, it is very hard for a president to get much done when faced with a recalcitrant Capitol Hill. If he wanted to govern effectively, Romney would have to be the dealmaker from Bain – not the Tea Party radical.
On foreign policy, the Republican candidate has offered various hostages to fortune. He might well give the green light for an Israeli attack on Iran. Frankly, however, even Obama might end up doing that. Romney has talked tough on Russia and has promised to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Since it would be awkward to break a campaign promise on day one, he would probably have to do that. Yet – whatever the impression he has sought to give to the voters of Ohio – such a decision would not automatically lead to tariffs.
Finally, there is the question of character. Romney’s record as a candidate suggests that he is a cold fish, without many fixed principles. These are not attractive qualities in a human being. But they would be useful qualities in a president.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.