Pragmatist or Opportunist?

Obama-RomneyEssentially the voters in 2012 will have a very simple choice to make, whether to elect a political pragmatist or a political opportunist. On the one side is President Barack Obama, who by all accounts holds very few, if any, ideological convictions. In fairness, he does lean just left of center, but rather than having a belief system rooted in progressive ideals, it appears that his belief system has been fashioned by his personal experiences and educational training alone. He is a no nonsense analytical thinker. He looks plainly at a situation and determines what can be accomplished. He then moves further away from his original position expecting that his opponents will do likewise, and embraces a series of compromises until some agreement is reached, however distant from his original position. While this jumping-off point normally lends itself to practical common sense solutions, it has failed to hold true in his case. However polarized the other side, he is determined to come away with something. Mitt Romney on the other hand also appears to lack any foundational ideology, while leaning marginally right. His early political career appears to have been fashioned by his experience at the feet of his father, the one time chief of American Motors and Governor of Michigan. His father is widely regarded as a right-leaning moderate. He has spent much of his adult life surrounded by business elites, and will advocate on their behalf so long as in doing so he treads upon the path of least resistance. He too seeks out practical solutions to the problem at hand, but he allows the political winds rather than any firmly held position to determine what is in fact practical. So, the question is whether it is better to elect an individual who refuses to bend when the longer term practical political consequences may be deleterious, or someone who will bend facilely.

Looking at some examples from Obama’s first term we can see the limits of political pragmatism and general rigidity. The most glaring example is his reaction to the financial crisis. His policy decisions following inauguration through today are generally accepted by his progressive base, as well as most rank and file Democrats, as being far too friendly to Wall Street and the financial sector generally. Much time and effort has been spent ensuring the solvency of the banking sector, while little or no help has been offered to those most affected by the crisis. Experts have opined that it is precisely the President’s pragmatic rigidity that has contributed to his failure to move toward a more progressive fair approach in addressing the depression. Interestingly, while disappointed, neither the Democratic base or independents have been willing to take Obama to task over his  continued willingness to assist Wall Street. Even while Obama has been reported to have a great degree of contempt for Wall Street and apparently views the fruits of its labor generally valueless, he has bent over backwards to help it. Even when pushed by the public and Congress to pass some sort of financial reform package, the result was an impotent regulatory regime in the name of Dodd-Frank, and facially attractive but only marginally  protective credit card and other consumer protection reforms. Yet Wall Street still views him with extreme and venomous derision.

Mitt Romney however will not be offered the kind acquiescence of progressives, rank and file Democrats, and independents, if he is to pursue similar policies of Wall Street philanthropy. He will be challenged continually by the Occupy movement as well as left-leaners on the ground. He may even face some push-back from the generally Wall Street friendly Democratic caucus in both houses of Congress. If Mitt Romney is to attempt to hand over trillions of dollars to Wall Street and the financial sector should the economy sink back into deep recession, he will be met with much greater protest and defiance from all political spheres, most notably because his own party seems weary of defying its Tea Party base in shoveling more cash into the hands of the bankers. With Mitt Romney we could actually find ourselves with more thoughtful policies toward the financial sector and more accommodative policies toward those suffering from its recklessness, as policy proposals that do not jive economically will be hard to sell. Given Mitt Romney’s movement on issues like health care, women’s rights, immigration, gun laws, the Bush tax cuts, climate change, LGBT rights, and stem cell research, it isn’t all that difficult to envision a Romney Presidency that if pushed by the public, would be far more flexible on policy. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney refused to sign Grover Norquist’s ridiculous tax pledge, raised fees across the board in order to balance the budget, signed a permanent assault weapons ban, and he passed near universal health care. He also fought same sex marriage, pushed for a death penalty bill, opposed prevailing wage and local labor contract provisions for government projects, proposed indexing the minimum wage to inflation, fought providing in-state tuition to undocumented persons, and refused to take part in real programs to regulate greenhouse gases.

His opponent, President Obama has accomplished some significant change since 2009. For example, he was able to pass a relatively small stimulus package–the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he signed the CARD Act, he advanced womens’ equality in pay in the workplace, he established the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, he saved General Motors and Chrysler from bankruptcy, he advanced LGBT rights, and he increased funding for alternative energy technology. He also signed or ordered several other smaller policy changes that will have a lasting effect on the environment, government, and the lives of individuals and families for decades to come. However, he has not removed the armed forces from the Middle East and Asia, he has not ended many of the unlawful practices at the CIA, he has not ended–rather he expanded–the wiretapping and surveillance of American citizens, he has not closed Guantanamo Bay Prison, he has not prosecuted a single executive of any of the corporations responsible for the financial collapse, he did not break up a single large bank, he has not pushed for meaningful loan modifications for the tens of millions of homes that are underwater, he worked with the states to limit the liability of the banks stemming from foreclosure fraud, he has not pushed to legalize medical marijuana, he tinkered with the funding of Social Security, he refused to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire, he has not pushed for significant student loan reform, he has not prosecuted any of the executives responsible for the BP oil spill, and he has not attempted to reign in offshore oil drilling. Essentially he has maintained the status quo, with a tweak here and there to throw red meat to his base. Yet rather than extend his hand in solidarity with the majority of Americans, he has instead chosen to allow himself to be cast as a socialist, while championing policies that  are nothing of the sort.

As the election draws near, the media narrative will certainly evolve into a disingenuous discussion of the perceived cavernous differences between the two candidates. The two candidates certainly have profound policy disagreements at the present time, but Romney just completed a grueling primary race in which he was forced to appeal to the far reaches of his party. In November, Romney will be competing with Barack Obama for the vote of each and every American, be they left, right, or center. Once elected, if elected, Romney will immediately form a team to begin planning his run for reelection in 2016. In 2016 he will again be competing for the majority of votes in each of the states, and not simply from the fringe of his party. The Grover Norquists and David Kochs will not suddenly pull back monetary and public support from Mitt Romney if he doesn’t campaign in lockstep with their stated principles. The alternative is to provide buoyancy to Barack Obama, and that is not an option. Ultimately, the two candidates are not terribly different on policy. Both candidates support Wall Street and recapitalization. Both candidates support rigid immigration policies. Both candidates support continuing the war on drugs to varying degrees. Obama has shown a willingness to support environmental research, while Romney’s penchant for practicality and opportunism may push him into taking on the highly unpopular oil companies. Neither candidate has proposed seriously reforming the corporate tax code. Neither candidate will risk embroiling America in a protracted and bloody conflict unless absolutely necessary. Neither candidate is willing to roll back the authority of private and public entities to spy on American citizens. Neither candidate is proposing to seriously regulate the cost of health care.

Barack Obama has been President for nearly four years and we’ve been able to develop a fairly exhaustive understanding of where he will position himself on nearly every issue. He will approach questions that he has little experience with unbreakable pragmatism. He will listen to his advisers and not back off his position once he has made his decision, rightly or wrongly. We can’t say the same for Mr. Romney. What we do know however is that Mitt Romney will say anything to get elected, and once elected, will do just about anything to get reelected. In doing so, the policy framework growing from a Romney Presidency could as much resemble that of Barack Obama as of George W. Bush. The unanswered question is whether the public can exert significant enough pressure upon him to sway his opinion and convince him of the political portentousness of defying them. If Mitt Romney believes that plastering 1,000,000 acres with solar panels, farming algae as fuel, raising the minimum wage, breaking up failing banks, drastically writing down mortgage debt, and pulling out of Afghanistan will win him another term and strengthen the economy, I’d be willing to bet he’d be on board in a hot second. He won’t be running against Rick Santorum anymore.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a Republican President, when pushed, signed or supported progressive legislation. President Nixon supported the ERA, implemented the first federal affirmative action program, over Republican dissent, as a convert to the environmental movement he established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed the Clean Air Act of 1970, he created the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and proposed a requirement that all emploees be covered with health care plans by their empoyers. President Reagan worked with Democrats to thoughtfully reform Social Security. President George H.W. Bush worked with Democrats to raise taxes, he reauthorized the Clean Air Act, and he signed and supported the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the most pro-civil rights legislation passed in many years. President Eisenhower built the interstate highway system and warned against the unbridled and unchecked growth of the military industrial complex.

The political environment is certainly more toxic than in recent memory, but the current toxicity is not certain to continue. Political fight or flight is an overwhelming motivator. We will have a choice between two practical political animals this fall. Both men are intelligent. Both men lack idealism or ideology. One man is a known quantity and one man is a wild card. So, who will it be?