Being from Massachusetts and a political junkie, I’m forever asked by people in other states what Mitt Romney is “really” like — as if the man running for president were a contestant in that old game show, “To Tell the Truth.” “Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up?”
Is he just a data-driven pragmatist, they want to know, or a privatizing plutocrat who wants to drown government in the bathtub? Is he a religious fundamentalist, or a live-and-let-live Republican like his predecessors in the governor’s office?
There is ample evidence for all of this, and more, in Romney’s Massachusetts biography. There’s the hot-pink leaflet from Romney and his lieutenant governor in 2002, wishing the state’s gay community “a great pride weekend!” And there are his aggressive efforts to block gay marriage after the state Supreme Judicial Court declared it constitutional in 2003.
There’s the insistence in his first gubernatorial debate with Democrat Shannon O’Brien that “I’m not in this race for rich people” and “I’m not going to cut essential services for the poor,” (sounding a lot like the Romney in the first presidential debate), but also his tacit agreement with Eric Kriss, his Bain Capital co-founder and secretary of administration and finance, who complained that the state’s Medicaid recipients were “takers” (shades of the 47 percent).
So the best answer to what Romney is like is: It depends. But if voters want to know what a Romney presidency would look like, they should examine the views and record of his chosen vice president, Paul Ryan.
Sure, the vice presidency is supposed to be the undercard, a purely strategic play to balance the ticket geographically or demographically. But the office has grown increasingly influential in national security and domestic matters. Fourteen VPs have gone on to become president. Dick Cheney vividly illustrated that a confident, driven vice president can shape an administration’s policies.
And Ryan, unlike his running mate, is a man driven by deep ideological convictions. He doesn’t blow with the wind. His 2012 House budget forthrightly cuts $5 trillion in federal spending over the next decade, including a 50 percent cut in Medicaid and a $134 billion cut in food stamps. In the vice-presidential debate, he would not soften his edges in an appeal to suburban women — as campaign advisers no doubt would have preferred — answering a question about the future of Roe v. Wade by saying he didn’t think unelected judges should decide the question of abortion (a question of constitutional rights, after all). On his party’s swerve to the right, he is unequivocal. “The Tea Party was a godsend,” he said.
Ryan would be a formidable policy voice in a Romney administration. Unfortunately, the policies he espouses are retrograde. He voted to ban gay adoptions in Washington, D.C. He voted to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. He co-sponsored a bill giving “personhood” protection under the 14th Amendment to the unborn, beginning at fertilization.
Unlike Ryan, Romney has no legislative record forcing him to take a position. And he likes to hedge his bets. A fleeting moment in the second presidential debate was revealing. Asked about the assault weapons ban he signed while governor (but which he opposes in federal legislation) Romney said the Massachusetts bill had been negotiated with “pro-gun and anti-gun people,” and included provisions both sides were happy with. “So it was a mutually agreed-upon piece of legislation,” he said.
With that bill, as with his health care plan, Romney preferred to make decisions with many advisers at the table. That’s admirable. But what happens when there is no consensus, and core guiding principles — not just politics — are needed? Faced with complex choices, it’s easy to imagine that a wavering Romney would outsource his decision to strongest argument in the room.
In a Romney administration, it is Ryan who would push an uncompromising agenda, Ryan who would rally social conservatives and deliver for the economic elite. That’s why voters should care who is Romney’s vice president. Because if Romney has been willing to suppress his true nature for so long, what does it matter who he “really” is?