Allergic to issues, obsessed with personality, and unwilling to confront the reality of Republican radicalism, most members of the mainstream media have focused their coverage of the GOP presidential nominee on a single banal inquiry: “Who is Mitt Romney?”
Allow me to clear this one up: it doesn’t much matter.
Befitting a Republican who sought statewide office in navy-blue Massachusetts, Mitt Romney spent most of his political life, in the words of The New Yorker’s Louis Menand, as “a liberal Republican cryogenically preserved from the pre-Reagan era.” Back in Massachusetts, Romney believed that “abortion should be safe and legal in this country” and pledged to “sustain and support” Roe v. Wade. He promised not to “line up with the NRA” and proudly boasted of the state’s “tough gun laws.” He refused to sign Grover Norquist’s “no tax” pledge as governor and termed it an example of “government by gimmickry.” He endorsed equal rights for gays, a generous immigration policy and, most famously, instituted universal healthcare for the state’s citizens based on an insurance mandate.
That fellow is as difficult to locate today, however, as the balance of a Cayman Islands bank account. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney opposes pretty much everything that Republican Senate candidate and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ever said and did. Even so, countless journalists (and perhaps not a few undecided voters) have been racking their brains trying to decide whether President Romney might revert to that nice liberal Republican who occupied his body until 2005 or so. Many conservatives apparently fear the same.
But that Mitt Romney passed into history together with that “maverick” media hero, John McCain (remember him?), and for much the same reasons. All successful statesmen must be able to demonstrate flexibility in making pragmatic political calculations, but Romney appears to do little else. Even the non-maverick-y McCain, circa 2008, defended Barack Obama when his more rabid supporters attacked the president’s patriotism, birthplace or religion. Romney, however, offers his silent assent under the same circumstances. So while the Tea Party amateurs—the naïve and frequently ill-informed pawns of wealthy corporate funders like the Koch brothers and their ilk who served as foot soldiers for the lunatic candidacies of Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich—may have pined for a more “authentic” conservative than Romney, the pros always knew better. As Norquist himself explained, “We just need a president who can sign the legislation that the Republican House and Senate pass. We don’t need someone to think. We need someone with enough digits on one hand to hold a pen.”
In a Romney White House, those digits may go limp with fatigue. A Romney victory would likely bring with it a large majority in the House and quite possibly a Republican Senate as well, and hence a tsunami of regressive legislation. As the longtime nonpartisan analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein argue, a Republican victory in November will likely prove a key turning point in modern American history. It will offer Republicans the opportunity, in Mann’s words, to put “in place a radical view of policy that goes well beyond anything Republicans have proposed in the past,” one that has moved so far rightward that “no Republican president in the modern era would have felt comfortable being a part of [it].” What’s more, they will likely succeed owing not only to Romney’s eagerness to blow with whatever winds may be buffeting him, but also, as Mann and Ornstein put it, to his party’s “demonstrated willingness to bend, break, or change legislative rules and customs that have stood in the way of radical change in the past.”
If you think the Tea Party has gone away, think again. Its members are not holding demonstrations so much anymore because they are staffing campaigns, winning Republican primaries (often against veteran incumbents and well-funded establishment favorites), or replacing the staffers of those they have scared into submission. As Dave Weigel writes in the Washington Monthly, “After 2010, the movement evolved. Activists got jobs with newly elected Republicans. Political organizations like the [corporate and conservative billionaire-funded and -controlled] Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks grew their staffs and budgets. Elected Republicans continued to draw on them for strength, support, and warm bodies at campaign events.” Under a Romney administration, many of these ignorant fanatics will be called upon to staff a significant number of the more than 3,000 federal appointments that a president makes, and his hundreds of potential judicial appointments as well.
The result, should Romney become president, will be a mixture of policies that favor the superwealthy, punish the poor and middle class, restrict the rights of average Americans, and—I say this without hyperbole—cause a degree of almost unimaginable and unprecedented chaos in virtually every area of American public life.
As president, Romney promises to focus on economic policy, and it is here where his impact may be greatest. The primary purpose of the modern Republican presidency has been to make the extremely rich far richer at the expense of the rest of us, and Mitt Romney promises to outdo all of his predecessors in this regard. George W. Bush’s $2.5 trillion in tax cuts, while ruinous to the nation’s balance of payments, succeeded in distributing only 12.5 percent of those trillions to his friends and cronies in the wealthiest 0.1 percent. Romney does Bush quite a bit better by proposing—on top of already unsustainable budget deficits—an additional $10.7 trillion in tax cuts over the next 10 years, with fully 33 percent directed toward the top one-tenth of 1 percent. The fine print calls for a reduction in both individual and corporate tax rates, as well as the complete elimination of both the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax. The net result would be that the superwealthy—those who enjoy an income in the vicinity of $3 million annually—keep an additional $250,000. According to the Urban Institute–Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, the cost will likely exceed $9 trillion in lost revenue in the coming decade.
Meanwhile Romney’s friends on Wall Street can also expect, under his presidency, to see the complete defenestration of the Dodd-Frank bill, which helps (albeit insufficiently)to protect consumers from the predatory practices of large financial institutions, while at the same time placing limits on the kinds of malpractice that caused the 2008 financial crisis.
Romney’s budget-busting plans also call for a cornucopia of new spending for each of the three major armed services, including the addition of 100,000 ground troops for the Army, an additional six new ships each year for the Navy, and more F-35 stealth warplanes for the Air Force. This adds up to a $2 trillion increase in the coming decade above what had previously been budgeted. (Congress and President Obama had earlier agreed to a $450 billion reduction.) These increases would come at a moment when the United States spends more on its military than its seventeen next-largest competitors combined. In fact, fully 64 percent of all 4.4 million employees on the federal payroll are already either in the uniformed military or work for the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security.
How will any of this be paid for? Romney pretends that significant savings will come from closing tax “loopholes,” but this is nonsense. Those loopholes were placed there specifically to reward the donors who pay the costs of our lawmakers’ political campaigns (just like the more straightforward across-the-board tax cuts for the superrich). Tea Party champions, including Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, are trying to prevent the Treasury Department from cracking down even on wealthy expatriate tax cheats. The notion that these loopholes will somehow be eliminated—especially when they continue to be expanded every time the tax code is adjusted—is too childish for adults to take seriously, save perhaps for a few gullible reporters and right-wing pundits.
All of the above would put unbearable pressure on an already stretched entitlements budget, as well as on those federal programs for the poor and middle class that have so far escaped the scalpel, while simultaneously raising the tax burden on these households. Regarding the latter, for instance, a tax plan released by Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch ends the Child Tax Credit, the American Opportunity Tax Credit (for college tuition) and a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit—which, when added together, would raise taxes on more than 20 million families, according to Seth Hanlon, the director of fiscal reform at the Center for American Progress.
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It gets worse. Romney has promised to use the “reconciliation” process to repeal Obamacare. But what will replace it? Well, again, chaos, no doubt, but also the Ryan plan—named for its author, Wisconsin Republican and Ayn Rand devotee Representative Paul Ryan, and now gospel among the GOP faithful. Romney has called himself “very supportive” of the plan, adding: “I think it’d be marvelous if the Senate were to pick up Paul Ryan’s budget and adopt it and pass it along to the president.” The House of Representatives has already passed it 235 to 193, with only four Republicans in opposition.
Among its provisions is a rise in the eligibility age for Medicare for future retirees and a retraction in Medicaid coverage, including its replacement by a voucher system. The net result would be not only the jump in the size of the deficit predicted by the Congressional Budget Office, but also, according to the calculations of the Urban Institute, the loss of Medicaid coverage for 27 million Americans. Meanwhile, another 30 million people—many of them children—would lose the insurance included in Obamacare. Add it all up and, according to Harvard health policy researcher (and former Obama administration official) David Blumenthal, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, “by 2020, 20% of Americans may be uninsured, even as 20% of our gross domestic product is devoted to health care.”
America’s children will also feel the wrath of Romney and the radical Republicans when it comes to education policy. Romney calls school choice “the civil rights issue of our era.” His education proposals eschew any new funding for public schools, preferring to direct it toward private school vouchers, privately managed charter schools and for-profit online schools. Like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and other Koch-funded right-wing demagogues, Romney blames public school teachers and their unions not only for the failures of the US education system, but also for the fiscal problems facing state and local governments. He hopes to weaken these bastions of Democratic fundraising and people power by using federal funds to reward states for “eliminating or reforming teacher tenure.” (Republican budget plans also slash programs like Head Start.)
As education expert Diane Ravitch observes, “Vouchers have been the third rail of education politics since Milton Friedman proposed them in 1955.” But in what she calls a likely “template for the Romney plan,” the Louisiana legislature instituted a voucher system independent of a popular vote. Ravitch explains, “With no increase in funding, all the money for vouchers and private vendors and online charters will be deducted from the state’s public education budget.” Beneficiaries in Louisiana have included outfits like the Eternity Christian Academy, a school with only fourteen students that applied under the voucher system to enroll an additional 135. According to Reuters, its students “sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains ‘what God made’ on each of the six days of creation.” Students are not exposed to the theory of evolution because, as the pastor turned principal explains, “We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children.”
At the university level, Romney will encourage private sector involvement by inviting commercial banks to profit from the federal student loan program, in keeping with the right-wing Republican fear of (and contempt for) knowledge. Romney also favors the creation of for-profit online universities, recently described in a report by Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate health and education committee, as institutions characterized by “exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation.”
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Then there’s the Supreme Court. The Roberts Court is already America’s most conservative since the New Deal. But with the addition of a single Romney nomination, it will become a rubber stamp for the ideological obsessions, corporate demands, and religious fanaticism on display at Tea Party rallies and Fox News–sponsored debates.
One need only take note of what former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse termed the “breathtaking radicalism” of the four dissenters in the Affordable Care Act decision to see where a Romney-appointed Court will be headed. With their signed opinions in the ACA case, Justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy “outed themselves,” in the words of legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen, “as partisans of the Constitution in Exile—the movement of economic libertarians who want the courts to resurrect pre–New Deal limits on federal power in order to dismantle the regulatory state piece by piece.” Three of the justices will turn 80 or older during the next four years, and a fourth will be 77. One more vote and the Roberts Court will enjoy unchecked power to increase the legal rights of corporations to pollute our air and rivers; mistreat workers and fire them should they complain; discriminate on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation; decertify unions; and control our political discourse with secretive campaign contributions and relentlessly scurrilous advertisements—indeed, to reduce the security of every American citizen. As legal reporter Dahlia Lithwick has written, “If you care about the future of abortion rights, stem cell research, worker protections, the death penalty, environmental regulation, torture, presidential power, warrantless surveillance, or any number of other issues, it’s worth recalling that the last stop on the answer to each of those matters will probably be before someone in a black robe.”
One area where the courts are certain to matter is immigration policy. It was here that Romney chose to burnish his Tea Party credentials most energetically during the primary season. He called Arizona’s draconian SB 1070—the one that allowed anyone’s papers to be checked on suspicion of looking Hispanic—a “model” for the rest of the nation. (This was before the Court found its key provisions unconstitutional.) He came out in favor of “self-deportation”—actually a right-wing euphemism for an immigration strategy of “attrition through enforcement”—and promised to veto the DREAM Act should its supporters somehow manage to pass it. Cognizant of how many votes this belligerent nativism would likely cost him among Hispanic voters, however, Romney has refused to say anything substantive on this issue since wrapping up the nomination. Still, it is no secret where he and his party stand, as immigration is one of the most animating issues for Tea Party enthusiasts.
Regarding the foreign policy agenda—which, after all, is where a president has the most freedom of action—an internal dossier from McCain’s presidential campaign noted back in 2008 that “Romney’s foreign affairs résumé is extremely thin, leading to credibility problems.” His disastrous July misadventures abroad did little to disabuse anyone of this view. Romney has surrounded himself with a group of extremely hawkish advisers, who even Colin Powell worries are “quite far to the right.” None had the prescience to oppose America’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, and more than a few give the impression of looking forward to trying something like it again.
Like most Republicans—and, to be fair, most Democrats—Romney has had next to nothing to say about America’s major foreign policy headaches of the past decade: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But if Romney becomes president, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Vegas oddsmaker willing to take bets against an Israeli, American or American/Israeli attack on Iran. While the Obama administration’s rhetoric on the question has hardly been reassuring to those who continue to favor diplomacy over bombing, Romney almost always manages to go the president one better. Romney has called Iran’s leaders the “greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union, and before that, Nazi Germany.” He says he would not even consult Congress before beginning an attack. As he explained on CBS’s Face the Nation in mid-June, “If I’m president, the Iranians will have no question but that I will be willing to take military action if necessary to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world. I don’t believe at this stage, therefore, if I’m president, that we need to have a war powers approval or special authorization for military force. The president has that capacity now.”
True, an attack would likely cause a conflagration in the Middle East, including missile attacks on Tel Aviv (as the Iranians have promised), a violent uprising among the Palestinians, the end of the Palestinian Authority and the unchallenged ascension of Hamas on the West Bank and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a likely wave of terrorism against Israeli and American targets worldwide. But insofar as Romney and the Republican Party’s current foreign policy is concerned—dominated as it is by neoconservative adventurists, far-right American Jewish funders like Sheldon Adelson, and evangelicals obsessed with Israel’s role in biblical revelation—whatever Bibi Netanyahu wants, Bibi gets.
Outside of the Middle East, Romney’s rhetoric has largely consisted of tough-guy talk of the kind that turns sometimes cooperative, sometimes recalcitrant strategic competitors into potentially threatening adversaries. For instance, he calls Russia “without question, our number one geopolitical foe” and accuses it of “always stand[ing] up for the world’s worst actors.” Likewise, Romney complains that China has “run all over us,” stealing American jobs and waging a “trade war” against the United States. Romney has said that he would haul China before the World Trade Organization on charges that it was manipulating its currency to ensure the relatively cheap prices of its exports.
Just how he plans to do this, given our massive reliance on China to continue to buy Treasury (and private sector) bonds—to say nothing of its role in issues like regional security and environmental degradation—Romney doesn’t specify. But should he try it, we can be reasonably certain of the result: chaos.
And while Barack Obama’s environmental commitments, both foreign and domestic, have certainly failed to live up to the promise of his campaign, no one should expect any progress on global environmental issues from President Romney. No matter how alarming the threats we face, Romney’s business-first philosophy combined with the Tea Party’s anti-“gummint” fanaticism has created the political equivalent of a brick wall through which literally no environmental regulation will manage to pass. As the New York Times editorial page observes, the post-Massachusetts Romney emerged a “proclaimed skeptic on global warming, a champion of oil and other fossil fuels, a critic of federal efforts to develop cleaner energy sources and a sworn enemy of the Environmental Protection Agency.” Moreover, as with immigration, his post-primary rhetorical efforts to shed the “climate denier” label have not been accompanied by any serious shifts in policy.
Under President Romney, the United States will almost certainly ignore the threat from global warming. Indeed, his party is already seeking to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate carbon emissions. House Republicans have even proposed legislation—called the TRAIN Act (for Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation)—to cut its power to regulate anything at all. A Republican Congress will also reduce or perhaps entirely eliminate subsidies for green energy, while preserving the tax breaks and subsidies for the oil and gas industries and opening up almost all US parklands, wilderness areas and offshore waters to drilling.
These are merely the highlights—and perhaps the most direct consequences—of a Romney win. But there will be many others as well.
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Some progressives argue that, nonetheless, President Obama has been such a disappointment that his defeat would not be an unmitigated loss for social justice movements. It’s true that with a Republican in the White House, more progressives would feel freer to give full voice to their complaints about America’s continued violations of civil liberties in its pursuit of suspected terrorists; its widespread use of pilotless drones to kill alleged enemies without due process; its inability to make any progress against global warming; its coddling of the criminals in the Bush administration, as well as those in the banking and housing industries who helped cause the 2008 crisis; and so on. But this freedom would come at a great cost: namely, seeing all of these problems—together with pretty much every other cause that progressives hold dear—worsen to a degree that most of us cannot even imagine. Protests will mount. Denunciations will fill the air. And the circulations of left-oriented publications and websites like this one will skyrocket. But the victims of these policies will suffer. Indeed, the millions of Americans who have been forced to live on the edge of financial collapse, or whose health is dependent on affordable and reliable healthcare, will see their margin of survival disappear.
Despite the many disappointments of his presidency, Barack Obama remains a vehicle for progressive change in America, one whose weaknesses reflect the weaknesses of the left in a system dominated by money, democratic dysfunction and a myopic media. Those are our real problems—not the attitude of the individual in the White House. And not one of them will improve once the power of the presidency is bestowed upon those who have created those problems and continue to profit by them. Indeed, nearly all of them will reach (and some may exceed) crisis proportions. And what that will lead to, no one—certainly not your author—can predict, save for one thing: chaos.