The political media sphere can be such an echo chamber of cliché and conventional wisdom that it strikes as a special treat whenever a piece of analysis escapes from it that actually makes one pause and think.
One such truffle from the 2008 presidential race holds particular interest for us today. Matt Taibbi, the renegade scribbler for Rolling Stone, speaking with Keith Olbermann about John McCain’s many policy oscillations, offered the following perspective:
“The worst thing about George Bush was that he had convictions. It was the things he actually believed in that got us into the most trouble. John McCain is a guy […] who will change his mind at the drop of a hat. He’s a cynic, as opposed to a true believer. In these times, I’ll take the cynic.”
It is ironic, in retrospect, that McCain’s most formidable primary opponent was Mitt Romney, who today is rewriting the book on not letting conviction get in the way of winning the damn election.
At this late date, it is simply a fact that Romney is prepared to finesse, alter or outright negate his public views about virtually every issue in the electoral bloodstream, if doing so might increase his chance of being elected president of these United States.
So we are led, inevitably, to the $64,000 question: What happens when he actually becomes president? Will he finally stick to a set of “core beliefs”—if so, which ones?—or, rather, will his term be ideologically neutral, guided purely by practicalities?
Now that we are tasked to take the prospect of a Romney victory seriously, we are equally compelled to entertain that his nature as a no-looking-back flip-flopper is a good thing. It just might be.
Taibbi’s point about President Bush was largely about Iraq: If Bush had not been so ideologically hell-bent on “staying the course,” the reasoning goes, then he would have more clearly seen how badly the war was going and made smarter, more practical decisions to rectify it. Bush’s certainty of the inherent goodness of the United States’ intervention in Iraq blinded him to the bloody, bloody consequences.
Mitt Romney, for his lack of foreign policy experience, is a much smarter and more pragmatic man than Bush. It is very difficult to picture Romney plowing ahead with a particular strategy if all the evidence shows it to be a failure. Romney’s reputation in the business world suggests nothing so much as an utter lack of tolerance for inefficiency, particularly if it makes Romney, the boss, look bad.
On foreign affairs, then, we might welcome a leader whose views will likely be conditional to the facts on the ground—who has nothing in particular to prove, other than his own competence.
Not that Romney’s stated views on the subject could be described as timid. Speaking earlier this month at the Virginia Military Institute, he asserted boldly, “[I]t is the responsibility of our president to use America’s great power to shape history—not to lead from behind.” This would suggest a foreign policy much closer to the eventual Bush doctrine that promised “ending tyranny in our world,” rather than Bush’s initial promise in 2000 to preside over “a humble nation.”
Nonetheless, Romney speaks of American power in a more inward fashion. Where Bush’s concern was ostensibly with oppressed citizens of foreign nations yearning to be free, Romney’s focus is more self-serving: America should assert its military might for its own sake, and not necessarily to uphold some larger ideal. Those are not the words of a man prepared to be bogged down in any particular foreign hellhole for a decade or more. Where is the profit in that?
Naturally, this is all speculative. One of the many lessons from George W. Bush was that a man’s world outlook can change rather dramatically between being a candidate and being leader of the free world. Further, we have not broached how a lack of ideological conviction might translate on the domestic front, which is no small concern. Nor have we factored in the residual force of the Tea Party to create mischief against Republicans and Democrats alike.
What we know we have, in any case, is the latest in a long line of Oval Office suitors who believe a good business sense is just what America needs. In Romney’s case, this would seem to require a degree of non-ideological thinking, which can be a very useful quality in a leader. A ruthless eye for the bottom line knows no partisan loyalty, and if ruthless efficiency is indeed Romney’s true nature—if he can be said to have a true nature—then he would do the electorate and himself a great deal of good simply to admit it.