Romney’s tongue-tied eloquence

By Fareed Zakaria

As President Obama has surged in the polls, Republicans have been quick to identify the problem: Mitt Romney. Peggy Noonan eloquently voiced what many conservatives believe when she said that Romney’s campaign has been a “rolling calamity.” Others have been equally critical of his candidacy. And yet, shouldn’t it puzzle us that Romney is so “incompetent” (also from Noonan), given his deserved reputation for, well, competence? He founded one of this country’s most successful financial firms, turned around the flailing Salt Lake City Olympics and was a successful governor. How did he get so clumsy so fast?

In fact, the problem is not Romney but the new Republican Party. Given the direction in which it has moved and the pressures from its most extreme — yet most powerful — elements, any nominee would face the same challenge: Can you be a serious candidate for the general election while not outraging the Republican base?

Fox News anchor Brit Hume got specific in his critique, saying this month that “Romney’s got the presidential bearing down. . . . What he [hasn’t done is] dwell at length on the economic policies that he would put in place.” Why won’t Romney, an intelligent man, fluent in economics, explain his economic policy? Because any sensible answer would cause a firestorm in his party.

It is obvious that, with a deficit at 8 percent of gross domestic product, any solution to our budgetary problems has to involve both spending cuts and tax increases. Ronald Reagan agreed to tax increases when the deficit hit 4 percent of GDP; George H.W. Bush did so when the deficit was 3 percent of GDP. But today’s Republican Party is organized around the proposition that, no matter the circumstances, there must never be a tax increase of any kind. The Simpson-Bowles proposal calls for $1 of tax increases for every $3 of spending cuts. But every Republican presidential candidate — including Romney — pledged during the primaries that he or she would not accept $10 of spending cuts if that meant a dollar of tax increases.

So Romney could present a serious economic plan with numbers that make sense — and then face a revolt within his own party. His solution: to be utterly vague about how he would deal with the deficit. When pressed for details recently, he explained that “the devil’s in the details. The angel is in the vision.” He’s right. Were he to get specific, he would be committing ideological blasphemy. So instead he talks about freedom and capitalism.

Romney’s own inclinations are obvious. In 2002, he refused to take Grover Norquist’s “no tax” pledge, despite the fact that his Republican predecessor as Massachusetts governor had done so. But by 2006, the ground had shifted and he raced to become the first presidential candidate to commit to it.

This is not just a story of the rise of economic conservatives. The same pattern has emerged on immigration. On ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday, Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace urged Romney to reach out to Hispanics by reminding them of Obama’s poor record on immigration reform: “[W]hen George W. Bush . . . John McCain and Ted Kennedy were trying to get something done, Barack Obama was nowhere,” she noted. Except that the Republican Party is now so strongly opposed to those proposals — which included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — that a co-sponsor of the bill, McCain, has renounced his own handiwork.

Romney has curried favor within the party by opposing the Dream Act, supporting Arizona’s harsh law under which police check people’s immigration status at will and proposing “self-deportation” as a way to get rid of undocumented immigrants. At Hispanic forums in recent weeks, Romney has said that he wants to solve the immigration issue permanently but has spoken about it in vague terms. As with the deficit, he has a plan — but it’s secret. There’s no point in letting the country — or his party — know it before Election Day.

The Republican Party has imposed a new kind of political correctness on its leaders. They cannot speak certain words (taxes) or speculate about certain ideas (immigration amnesty) because these are forbidden. Romney has tried to run a campaign while not running afoul of his party’s strictures. As a result, he has twisted himself into a pretzel, speaking vacuously, avoiding specifics and refusing to provide any serious plans for the most important issues of the day. That’s a straitjacket that even Peggy Noonan’s eloquence cannot get him out of.

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