Mitt Romney isn’t a panderer

Cesar Conda Contributor
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Recently, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and former Bush speechwriter David Frum exchanged blog posts over Governor Mitt Romney’s sincerity and commitment to the positions he takes on the issues (in full disclosure, I was a policy advisor to Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign). Specifically, Douthat writes:

In the last couple years, Romney has taken high-profile positions that I agree with (opposing the G.M. bailout), high-profile positions that I disagree with (opposing the START Treaty), and high-profile positions on issues I’m uncertain about (the current tax deal). But because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.

In response, Frum writes in his blog:

I sometimes imagine that Romney approaches politics in the same spirit that the CEO of Darden Restaurants approaches cuisine. Darden owns Olive Garden, Longhorn steakhouses, and Red Lobster among other chains. Now suppose that Darden’s data show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining. Suppose they convert some of their Longhorn outlets to Olive Gardens. Is that “flip-flopping”? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?

Frum is right. To a certain extent, every politician, at least the successful ones, are “Olive Garden CEOs” who “give the people what they want.” Even Ronald Reagan, the icon of conviction politicians, converted or adjusted his positions at times to meet the demands of the political marketplace. Remember back in 1980, Reagan wasn’t a supply-sider, until Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY) convinced him to make the Kemp-Roth 30 percent across-the-board tax cuts the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

So my question to Douthat: Was Ronald Reagan “pandering” to Jack Kemp and his supply-side supporters? Wasn’t this a good way to “run for president”? Does Governor Romney’s support for block-granting Medicaid, reforming Medicare, or changing the indexation of Social Security benefits “feel like a pander” to Douthat? If so, then exactly who is Romney pandering to by taking these politically controversial stances? Certainly not the seniors who oppose any changes to these out-of-control entitlement programs.

Finally, if Romney were the panderer that Douthat imagines, then he would have long ago disavowed his Massachusetts health care reform, which has become controversial among some conservatives. Instead, Romney has enthusiastically defended the health care law, arguing that it was a solution tailored to fit the unique circumstances in Massachusetts. When he ran for president in 2008, Romney explicitly opposed a one-size-fits-all health care reform by the federal government.

If anyone wants to know where Mitt Romney “really stands” on the issues, then examine his record as a governor and as a presidential candidate in 2008.

Cesar Conda is a Founding Principal and Executive Committee Member of Navigators Global LLC, a bipartisan government relations and strategic communications firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York and London.