Mitt Romney, the pretzel candidate

by George Will

The Republican presidential dynamic — various candidates rise and recede; Mitt Romney remains at about 25 percent support — is peculiar because conservatives correctly believe it is important to defeat Barack Obama but unimportant that Romney be president. This is not cognitive dissonance.

President Obama, a floundering naif who thinks ATMs aggravate unemployment, is bewildered by a national tragedy of shattered dreams, decaying workforce skills and forgone wealth creation. Romney cannot enunciate a defensible, or even decipherable, ethanol policy.

Life poses difficult choices, but not about ethanol. Government subsidizes ethanol production, imposes tariffs to protect manufacturers of it, mandates the use of it — and it injures the nation’s and the world’s economic, environmental and social (it raises food prices) well-being.

In May, in corn-growing Iowa, Romney said, “I support” — present tense — “the subsidy of ethanol.” And: “I believe ethanol is an important part of our energy solution for this country.” But in October he told Iowans he is “a business guy,” so as president he would review this bipartisan — the last Republican president was an ethanol enthusiast — folly. Romney said he once favored (past tense) subsidies to get the ethanol industry “on its feet.” (In the 19th century, Republican “business guys” justified high tariffs for protecting “infant industries”). But Romney added, “I’ve indicated I didn’t think the subsidy had to go on forever.” Ethanol subsidies expire in December but “I might have looked at more of a decline over time” because of “the importance of ethanol as a domestic fuel.” Besides, “ethanol is part of national security.” However, “I don’t want to say” I will propose new subsidies. Still, ethanol has “become an important source of amplifying our energy capacity.” Anyway, ethanol should “continue to have prospects of growing its share of” transportation fuels. Got it?

Every day, 10,000 baby boomers become eligible for Social Security and Medicare, from which they will receive, on average, $1 million of benefits ($550,000 from the former, $450,000 from the latter). Who expects difficult reforms from Romney, whose twists on ethanol make a policy pretzel?

A straddle is not a political philosophy; it is what you do when you do not have one. It is what Romney did when he said using TARP funds for the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts “was the wrong source for that funding.” Oh, so the source was the bailouts’ defect.

Recently in Ohio, Romney straddled the issue of the ballot initiative by which liberals and unions hope to repeal the law Republican Gov. John Kasich got enacted to limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Kasich, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, is under siege. Romney was asked, at a Republican phone bank rallying support for Kasich’s measure, to oppose repeal of it, and to endorse another measure exempting Ohioans from Obamacare’s insurance mandate (a cousin of Romneycare’s Massachusetts mandate). He refused.

His campaign called his refusal was principled: “Citizens of states should be able to make decisions … on their own.” Got it? People cannot make “their own” decisions if Romney expresses an opinion. His flinch from leadership looks ludicrous after his endorsement three months ago of a right-to-work bill New Hampshire’s Legislature was considering. So, the rule in New England expires across the Appalachian Mountains?

A day after refusing to oppose repeal of Kasich’s measure, Romney waffled about his straddle, saying he opposed repeal “110 percent.” He did not, however, endorse the anti-mandate measure, remaining semi-faithful to the trans-Appalachian codicil pertaining to principles, thereby seeming to lack the courage of his absence of convictions.

Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November, is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable, he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate: Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the tea party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming.

Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from “data” (although there is precious little to support Romney’s idea that in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants is a powerful magnet for such immigrants) and who believes elections should be about (in Dukakis’ words) “competence,” not “ideology.” But what would President Romney competently do when not pondering ethanol subsidies that he forthrightly says should stop sometime before “forever”? Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for this?

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com © 2011, The Washington Post Writers Group