Lessons from a victory that never was / The Economist

“DON’T blame me, I voted Romney,” proclaims a T-shirt popular among Republicans. Another gag, popular in the conservative blogosphere, begins: “They told me that if I voted for Romney…” and then adds the horror of the week. For example: “They told me that if I voted for Romney, Detroit would go bankrupt. And they were right!” All this is nearly as much fun as obstructing Barack Obama in the House of Representatives.

But what if Mitt Romney had won in 2012? America would now be nearly 200 days into his first term in the White House. It is worth pondering how different things might look.

Mr Romney has passed into folk memory as a cautious, tin-eared rich guy, distrusted even by his own party as a “Massachusetts moderate”. During the campaign Democrats hammered him as an out-of-touch CEO, wedded to supply-side ideas that reeked of the 1980s. They jeered at his career at Bain Capital, a private-equity firm, painting him as a footloose global capitalist who would sack his grandmother to maximise profits. As a tactic it was crude, often unfair, and rather successful.

Yet interviews with former aides, along with recently-disclosed internal documents, reveal the former Bay State governor to be more interesting, even radical. During his first 200 days in office, he planned a “continual stream of rapid changes” to the way that America taxes and spends, cares for its sick and needy and regulates business. Aides drew comparisons, as incoming administrations often do, to the frenetic activity of Franklin Roosevelt’s early months in office, during which he signed 15 big bills.

Michael Leavitt, the former Utah governor who chaired Mr Romney’s transition team, describes plans to deliver a “jolt of confidence” by showing seriousness in a few big areas. He would simplify America’s spaghetti-spill of a tax code. He would grapple with the deficit; expand domestic energy production; and reduce the role of government in health care by hollowing out “Obamacare” reforms. Success was to be measured by bosses releasing cash they were hoarding when Mr Obama was president, and rushing to join a Romney-led American revival.

Romney aides wince at the comparison, but their 200-day plans sound like a Bain turn-around for America’s economy: a co-ordinated series of shocks aimed at impressing investors, but likely to startle and anger many ordinary folk. Democrats would have scorned it as a wish-list for bosses and billionaires. But Mr Romney believed his reforms would work, and work fast. Benefits would follow swiftly, in the form of private investment and job creation: persuading the wider public to trust in President Romney’s competence, if not to love him.

Team Romney’s 200-day plans included immediate, 5% cuts to public spending excluding security and social payments (though more money for defence), a weakening of the rules that Republicans say favour trade unions, a squeeze on public-sector jobs and pay, and a global push for free trade. Mr Romney would also have proposed lower income- and corporate-tax rates, offset by closing loopholes. Abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, a conservative dream, was not on the cards. But “personnel is policy”, notes Glenn Hubbard, Mr Romney’s chief economic adviser. Those chosen to regulate energy and tackle climate change would have weighed costs against benefits minutely. A long-term squeeze on welfare and health spending was a priority: wholesale immigration reform was not.

Aides talk of restoring a “muscular” American presence in the world, but in truth their foreign-policy plans mostly amounted to harrumphing rhetoric and calls for policy reviews. There was to be no military re-escalation in Afghanistan and no dramatic shift on Iran. A daft plan to name China a currency manipulator was to be studied, which presumably means “buried”.

Would businesses have rushed to invest in a Romney recovery? That is tricky. Granted, many bosses distrust Mr Obama. But firms have been hoarding cash for years now, in many different countries: the link between political leadership and investment is not straightforward.

President Romney, meet Senator Reid

The Romney shock was to involve a torrent of executive action but also new laws. Would Democrats have played ball? Though they hoped to win both arms of Congress and the White House, Romney aides thought it more likely that they would control the presidency and the House of Representatives, but not the Senate. Team Romney was confident of recruiting Democratic allies, assuming that some senators from conservative states would back free trade, fracking, some tax cuts and a clamping down on health costs. That is plausible, but other plans (cuts to social programmes, gutting Obamacare), would have sparked bitter fights. Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate, is no pushover.

A Romney win would have shown that America is a centre-right country, says Lanhee Chen, Mr Romney’s chief policy adviser; enough Democrats would have got the message and co-operated with him. That belief—in a conservative America—unites the Republicans’ quarrelsome tribe. Conservatives do not accept that re-election gave Mr Obama a mandate for very much. They see him as a huckster who bribed and talked some of America’s least-informed voters into backing him. (More politely, a Romney aide calls Mr Obama “extremely gifted, as a campaigner”.) His last election behind him, Mr Obama now looks to Republicans like a huckster out of fresh patter, peddling ideas far from the mainstream. That is why they defy him without fear, and embrace gridlock in Congress as a badge of honour.

Mr Romney’s plans are no historical curiosity, in short. They reflect the confidence and radicalism of today’s Republican Party. Though he lost, America’s would-be CEO left a legacy.