Friday, December 17, 2010

The Mittbot

Great stuff today about Mitt Romney, with the highlight being David Frum's defense of Romney as the Olive Garden candidate:
I sometimes imagine that Romney approaches politics in the same spirit that the CEO of Darden Restaurants approaches cuisine. Darden owns Olive Garden, Longhorn steakhouses, and Red Lobster among other chains. Now suppose that Darden’s data show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining. Suppose they convert some of their Longhorn outlets to Olive Gardens. Is that “flip-flopping”? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?
What should people look for in a presidential candidate?  Frum trumpets "consumer service" as a virtue, not a flaw.  Matt Yglesias isn't so sure:
To a large extent our political system is already biased toward promoting power-crazed sociopaths into positions of authority. The public’s aversion to people who appear to have this quality to a greater extent than other high-profile politicians seems very understandable to me. Meanwhile, at the end of the day Ross Douthat is right to say that this still leaves you necessarily puzzled by the question of what a Romney Administration would actually do. Is it so crazy for political activists and pundits to be curious about this? 
Let me separate those two things.   First, "power-crazed sociopaths."  What I'd say to that is that ambition is a virtue, not a flaw, in politicians.  Democrats very much want Barack Obama to deeply care about re-election, because they want a Democrat in the White House in 2013-2016.  Moreover, they want him to care about wielding his influence as much as possible, because otherwise events will be dictated by Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner, or General Petraeus, or some anonymous bureaucrat in the Commerce Department, or just by the random rush of events and reactions. 

The limiting problem with that is that ambitious people may well be "power-crazed sociopaths."  But I don't think, at all, that those two things are identical, and I'm not sure it's impossible to separate the Richard Nixons and Lyndon Johnsons (who mostly were) from the Ronald Reagans and Bill Clintons (who were highly ambitious, but not power-crazed sociopaths).  We have, for most of these people, careers to look at.  Did they follow the rules?  Did they try, as Newt Gingrich did, to destroy institutions in order to achieve their goals?  Did they operate through bargaining, or bullying?  Sure, there are fine lines to be drawn here (when does "toughness" -- good -- become "bullying" -- bad?).  But that's why it's good to have peer review components in a healthy nominations process, especially at the presidential level.

So, with the caveat that it isn't an unambiguous virtue, for the most part I'd advise people to choose for, not against, ambition.

Now, the second part of what Yglesias said -- how can anyone know what Romney will actually do it elected?  I think the answer is, basically, the same way you can know that about anyone.  He'll follow party incentives, and institutional incentives, and other such things that have little or nothing to do with what he "really" thinks.  And that's mostly a good thing!  As I've said many times, our presidents are experts on practically none of the issues about which they must make decisions.  If they fool themselves into thinking that they know more than anyone else about arms control, or the effects of economic stimulus, or farming, or 5th amendment jurisprudence, or what North Korea is up to, then there's a good chance they'll fail.  Even worse, if they convince themselves (as Woodrow Wilson, and probably George W. Bush, did) that as a result of being elected they share some mystical bond with the American people that allows them, and only them, to understand what the American people "really" want...well, that's a recipe for disaster. 

Now, might still oppose Romney for all sorts of other reasons.  But to me, flexibility of beliefs in pursuit of office is generally a good thing in a presidential candidate.

(See also Ross Douthat, who Frum was responding to, and Daniel Larison, who makes what I think boils down to an aesthetic argument against Romney's style).


  1. Jonathan, there is something really, really wrong with this. Your love of transactional politics and the political process generally carries you too far.
    Politicians in your portrayal are purely Pavlovian. They might as well pick their party affiliations out of a hat, or rather out of the early er opportunities that arise for them. It's one thing to believe that politicians can and should be pushed by incentives from their party leadership and their own constituents to reconsider and bend their positions, even to sacrifice a position or two in the interests of political survival -- as, say, Bill Clinton copped do doing on the Cuban embargo. But you often embrace the notion that they are (and should be) wholly governed by incentives. So why not Romney, the most shamelessly malleable politician of our time, capable of denouncing Obama's nationalization of Romneycare as a betrayal of his office, in place of a probably-dumber rival?
    Ambition may be good and necessary, but it's got to be an ambition to accomplish some specific things besides self-aggrandizement and party power maximization. Otherwise it's dangerous. Most of those who denounce ambition are probably denouncing ambition that they perceive to be divorced from any recognizable end but power.

  2. I think it's important to distinguish between "power-crazed" and "status-crazed". Those are really two different kinds of ambition.

    Someone who is only interested in the honors and perquisites that come with high office is much scarier than someone who actually wants to do something with that office.

  3. Jon,
    Can't we bring back SOME of the responsible parties thesis, though? Maybe not the parties part; that was relatively silly in light of American party structures and incentives. But the responsible part.

    Shouldn't a democratic choice involve choice? What choice is offered in an election between two chameleons? Say, the Mittster and the stereotype of Bill Clinton (not the actual president, but what some accused him of being). If both are going to simply do whatever polls tell them to do, what's the point of having an election (beyond it being the mechanism of making them run to the center).

    It seems to me that a system that only does what the median voter wants isn't very democratic.

  4. Matt,

    Of course there's choice. Pols don't just do whatever the polls tell them; they're constrained by all sorts of things, many of them party-related. Anyway, the election gives them an incentive to govern well, in the sense of making constituents happy. That's a pretty good thing, even if it's not always the only thing.

  5. I think what this post misses is that part of the role of a president is to credibly bargain on behalf of an ideological faction (this is part of what's gotten Obama into trouble recently, but it would be much worse for a hypothetical President Romney). If I were a conservative Republican, I could never trust that Romney had actually struck the best deal possible or fought for all he could get, and as a result it would be tough to support him. The same goes if I were a moderate Republican, for that matter. By way of contrast, consider George W. Bush. He failed conservatives in all kinds of ways, but at the end of the day everyone knew who he was, and that made him a credible bargainer.

  6. I think the second part of this post missses two groups of voters who should care about Romney's opportunism.

    The first is Republican primary voters. They know that all their candidates will face pretty much the same pressures if elected. But they want to know the differences between how each candidate will respond to those pressures. Even if those differences are mild, they are the only reason for voting for one candidate over another. Indeed, primary votesrs would want to know that their candidate can be convincing and win people over to his side, and with Romney, we are talking about someone who cannot convince anyone, because no one will believe he genuinely means what he says.

    The second group is swing voters in the general election. They will want to know which of the two candidates is closer to their views. If all they cared about was whether the candidate is a Democrat or a Republican, they would not be swing voters.

    Two groups that should not care very much are solid Republicans and solid Democrats in the general election. But for those of them who are debating whether to vote at all, the extent to which Romney is clearly on their side (or against it) should matter at the margins (which, as you often say, sometimes decide elections).

  7. Dan Miller -

    Thank you for the argument above. I'm not bothered by Romney's flimflamminess, I see it as political criticism of what corporate chieftains call "Going to Plan B when Plan A doesn't work". We admire this in corporate CEOs, so why not the national CEO? (Indeed, Romney's bona fides as a CEO are about as good as any candidate ever).

    However, if I am a hardcore partisan Republican voter, I know that, best case scenario, my guy (or gal) is only going to be in the WH a little better than half the time. I want to exploit those windows to push the country in my preferred direction as much as possible; a guy like Romney may not be so motivated - his flipflopping won't reassure me that he'll move the country as far right as reasonably possible.

    So while Romney's wishywashiness may mask pragmatism that allows him to get things done (such as when he was at Bain Capital), he may not get the types of things done that I want if I have a solid R after my name - and thus I may vote for Palin, even if I perceive her to be infinitely less qualified than the Mittbot. Good point.

  8. I dont think sociopath means what you think it means. Stupid term anyway.


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