Risky Business

In the course of his post-Illinois ruminations about Mitt Romney the putative GOP nominee, my TNR colleague Noam Scheiber discusses Romney’s management-consultant tendency to play the safe strategic percentages, and then sets out an interesting hypothetical:

Will Romney have the guts to take a massive gamble—to make a move that offers him a higher probability of success than his current strategy but also a greater chance of spectacular failure? I have in mind here something like a long-ball vice presidential pick (maybe a sitting Democratic governor?) or a balanced-budget plan that increases taxes on the wealthy. He’s ambitious and clear-eyed enough to see the benefit of such a move against a heavily-favored incumbent—and, at least in the latter case, he may even believe in it—but also so lacking in nerve that it’s hard to imagine him pulling the trigger.

I think the problem with the entire premise here is the belief that it is within Romney’s power to attempt such audacious maneuvers, even if he somehow wanted to. We now have enough examples to choke a horse of the absolute unwillingness of Republicans in Congress or anywhere else to support fiscal measures that include “increases [in] taxes on the wealthy.” That’s not because Republicans are universally risk-averse; au contraire, they are currently gambling heavily on an unpopular budget proposal because it fits their ideological framework, which isn’t very popular, either.

As for picking a Democrat for his running-mate, we have another recent precedent that tells us just about everything we need to know about the plausibility of such a maneuver. In the summer of 2008, John McCain was facing an uphill climb in the general election. Unlike Romney, McCain was famously attracted to risk-taking. And according to multiple accounts, he wanted to pick as his running-mate his close friend Joe Lieberman, who had already burned bridges with his own party by running against its Senate nominee in 2006, and then endorsing McCain and campaigning actively for him.

But McCain finally gave up on that idea when his advisors convinced him the step would likely provoke an ugly floor revolt at the GOP convention that would virtually guarantee a divided party and a loss in November. And that’s what ultimately drove McCain to the “high risk, high reward” tactic of choosing a little-known Alaska governor who fit the exceedingly narrow criteria of being a “maverick” who had defied the Republican establishment of her state but was also a cult figure among right-to-lifers and Christian Right leaders generally.

In other words, the ideological prison of his party meant that any big risk-taking had to be to the Right of party orthodoxy, not to the Left.

There is nothing about Mitt Romney or his current situation that changes that fundamental rule; indeed, the GOP has become significantly more ideologically right-wing since 2008, as Romney knows well since he was the “movement conservative” primary candidate that year and now is at least as suspect to conservative activists as McCain was four years ago.

The last time any major Republican candidate took a leftward-leaning risk was probably in 1976, when Ronald Reagan, just a tantalizing handful of delegates shy of upending an incumbent president at the GOP convention, announced his running-mate would be the relatively liberal Sen. Richard Schweicker of PA. And although Reagan was the reigning, unchallenged leader of the conservative movement at the time, the gambit backfired by costing him more delegates in conservative Mississippi than he gained in PA.

Romney obviously doesn’t have Reagan’s freedom to maneuver, and certainty not in 2012, when the GOP is vastly and uniformly more conservative than it was in 1976.

If Romney does overcome his aversion to risk, and tries to execute a “Game Change,” like McCain, he’ll have to gamble on more, not less, conservatism.

And the broader lesson, as the Jan/Feb issue of the Washington Monthly explained repeatedly, is that anyone hoping Mitt Romney, as a candidate or as a president, is going to be a pleasant surprise to progressives and moderates and an unpleasant surprise to hard-core conservatives, is not paying much attention to the recent history or current dynamics of the GOP.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.