Conventional political wisdom states that, to become president, you must first acquire your party's nomination by pandering to its radical base. After that, you win the general election by moving back to the ideological center. Keep that axiom in mind as you're reading this editorial.
Back in February, Mitt Romney earned the derision of political observers when he tried to woo attendees at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference by referring to himself as "severely conservative." At the time, most spectators dismissed his remark as being yet another embarrassing misstep in a long string of attempts to pander to his party's far right elements. Since the beginning of the summer, however, two campaign-defining incidents have occurred which suggest there was more truth to Romney's self-description than was generally believed.
First he announced that his vice presidential running mate would be Congressman Paul Ryan, a man who has spent his time as Chairman of the House Budget Committee pushing for policies that the Congressional Budget Office reported would significantly reduce access and cut services to health care programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP. Then, last week, Mother Jones released a tape in which Romney made this declaration:
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing...
I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 percent to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful."
Note the contempt-filled sarcasm Romney used when painting a picture of the group now referred to as "the 47 percent." In a single stroke, he scornfully dismissed them as individuals who perceive themselves as "victims," who feel "entitled," who aren't "thoughtful" and "won't take personal responsibility and care for their lives." Also bear in mind that the term "47 percent" is being applied here to people who doesn't pay federal income taxes (actually 46%), which includes those who don't earn enough money for a household of their size to being able to afford the tax, senior citizens, the working poor and low-income parents, and college students who need tax breaks for tuition or other education expenses. Nine out of ten of these individuals earn $50,000 a year or less; almost two-thirds of them work, meaning that they actually pay quite a bit in payroll taxes.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with observing that some of the 47% are lazy moochers who would rather depend on the government than take control of their own lives, and that as such welfare programs need to be careful about addressing that problem. Indeed, that's a position with which many liberals (see the presidency of Bill Clinton) would agree. By affixing that disparaging characterization to the entire "47%." However, Romney adopted a mantle of class warriorism that is very ill fitting when worn by an ostensible moderate. After all, just as it is class warfare to claim that all wealthy people are avaricious and malevolent exploiters (a statement that no one outside the radical left would intentionally make), so too is it class warfare to paint all or most of the people who are economically disadvantaged with such a broad brush.
That is the key difference between the economic ideology of a "severe conservative" and the point of view of a moderate conservative. For a perfect articulation of the latter, see this quote from the Republican who coined the term "dynamic conservatism," President Dwight Eisenhower:
"The very fact that man is a spiritual thing makes it impossible for any durable governmental system to ignore hordes of people who through no fault of their own suddenly find themselves poverty stricken, and far from being able to maintain their families at decent levels, cannot even provide sustenance. Mass production has wrought great things in the world, but it has created social problems that cannot be possibly met under ideas that were probably logical and sufficient in 1800.
What I mean by the 'Middle of the Road' is that course that preserves the greatest possible initiative, freedom, and independence of soul and body to the individual, but that does not hesitate to use government to combat cataclysmic economic disasters which can, in some instances, be even more terrible than convulsions of nature."
In short, a moderate conservative recognizes state economic interventionism as a necessary evil, with the "evil" coming from the state's potential to hinder "the greatest possible initiative, freedom and independence of soul and body," and the necessity being born of the fact that a modern government cannot be effective unless it meets its moral and practical obligation to help those whose economic disadvantages have occurred "through no fault of their own." However, because the "severe conservatives" to whom Romney was appealing insist on removing "necessary" from the "necessary evil" point-of-view, they almost by default depict anyone who winds up on the wrong side of "cataclysmic economic disasters" — be they sudden convulsions like the crashes of 1929 and 2008 or more ingrained structural injustices, like the ones that lead to inner-city poverty or the struggles of a full-time minimum wage lifestyle — as being at fault and thus undeserving of the government's help. After he chose Ryan as his running mate, we learned that Romney felt this group included the millions of Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP recipients who will be impacted by the Ryan Budget's cuts. Now that the "47%" comments have come out, we also know it refers to the working poor, senior citizens, and college students.
This brings me back to the axiom that opened this article. Do you know who else agrees with that axiom? Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who once commented that after you move to the right to win the Republican presidential primaries, "you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” I don't doubt for a moment that Romney wishes he could do that right now. Given the signs that he may actually be a "severe conservative," however, the electorate must not let him.