Frame Game

Mitt Romney, Liberal

In the Post/Bloomberg debate, Romney shows his liberal side.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during the Republican Presidential debate hosted by Bloomberg and the Washington Post on October 11, 2011.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during the Republican Presidential debate hosted by Bloomberg and the Washington Post on October 11, 2011

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Is Mitt Romney really a conservative? For several years, he has tried to assure Republican primary voters that he is. But in last night’s Washington Post/Bloomberg debate, he sent multiple signals that beneath his orthodox positions on many issues—unions, stimulus-bashing, corporate tax relief—lurks some liberal thinking. Here are his key moments from the debate.

1. Bailouts. Twenty-five minutes in, Romney was asked whether he would prop up the economy in a future financial crisis the way President Bush did in 2008. Unlike some other Republicans at the table, Romney agreed with Bush that “action had to be taken.” But he stipulated:

I’m not interested in bailing out individual institutions that have wealthy people that want to make sure that their shares are worth something. I am interested in making sure that we preserve our financial system, our currency, the banks … The idea of trying to bail out an institution to protect the shareholders or to protect a certain interest group, that’s a terrible idea.

Wealthy people. Shareholders. Opposing bailouts is natural if you believe in free markets. But why does it matter how rich the beneficiaries are? It matters only if you think the government should distribute money according to wealth. A reasonable position, but a liberal one.

2. Trade. Forty-five minutes in, moderator Charlie Rose showed a clip of Romney pledging to “go after” China for currency manipulation and intellectual property theft. After watching the clip, Romney added:

People who have looked at this in the past have been played like a fiddle by the Chinese. And the Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank, taking our currency and taking our jobs and taking a lot of our future. And I am not willing to let that happen. … When people have pursued unfair trade practices, you have to have a president that will take action. And on Day One … I will issue an executive order identifying China as a currency manipulator. We’ll bring an action against them in front of the WTO for manipulating their currency, and we will go after them. If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over by China.

Played like a fiddle. Smiling all the way to the bank. Taking our jobs. Stand up to China. Go after them. That’s as hard-edged as anything Dick Gephardt said about Japan. If we can’t have a shooting war in Iraq or Afghanistan, let’s have a trade war, or at least a legal war, with China. “Executive order” gives this issue a nice military flavor. But then Romney segues from populism to liberalism. Where does he intend to do battle? Before the World Trade Organization. What could be more liberal than filing a legal complaint with a global governance body?

3. Health insurance. After the other candidates took shots at Obamacare, Romney weighed in:

I’m proud of the fact that I’ve put together a plan that says what I’m going to replace it with. And I think it’s incumbent on everybody around this table to put together a plan that says this is what I’ll replace it with, because the American people are not satisfied with the status quo. They want us to solve the problem of health care, to get it to work like a market, and that’s what has to happen.

Later, when Rick Perry accused Romney of driving up insurance premiums, Romney replied:

I’m proud of the fact that we took on a major problem in my state. And the problem was that we had a lot of kids without insurance, a lot of adults without insurance, but it added up to about 8 percent of our population. And we said, you know what, we want to find a way to get those folks insured, but we don’t want to change anything for the 92 percent of the people that already have insurance. … We have the lowest number of kids as a percentage uninsured of any state in America. You (Perry) have the highest. … We have less than 1 percent of our kids that are uninsured. You have a million kids uninsured in Texas. A million kids. Under President Bush, the percentage uninsured went down. Under your leadership, it’s gone up. I care about people.

I care about people? That sounds like what Perry said about immigration: that anyone who opposed his policy of in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants working toward citizenship didn’t “have a heart.” Equating subsidies with compassion is a common Democratic habit. Free-market conservatives find it galling. But Romney, like Perry, seems to have acquired it. And unlike Perry, he thinks the government must “replace” Obamacare with something that will “solve the problem of health care.”

4. Middle-class tax cuts. An hour into the debate, Newt Gingrich asked Romney:

One of the characteristics of Obama in his class-warfare approach has been to talk about going after people who made over $250,000 a year and divide us. And I was a little surprised—I think it’s about page 47 of your plan—that you have a capital-gains tax cut for people under $200,000, which is actually lower than the Obama model. Now, as a businessman, you know that you actually lose economic effectiveness if you limit capital gains tax cuts only to people who don’t get capital gains. So I’m curious: What was the rationale for setting an even lower base marker than Obama had?

Romney answered:

The reason for giving a tax break to middle-income Americans is that middle-income Americans have been the people who have been most hurt by the Obama economy. … Median income in America has declined by 10 percent during the Obama years. People are having a hard time making ends meet. And so if I’m going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes, I want to focus on where the people are hurting the most, and that’s the middle class. I’m not worried about rich people. They are doing just fine. The very poor have a safety net, they’re taken care of. But the people in the middle, the hard-working Americans, are the people who need a break, and that is why I focused my tax cut right there.

If I’m going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes, I want to focus on where the people are hurting the most. That’s Romney’s most revealing statement of the night. A property-oriented conservative would say that dollars belong to the people who earned them and that tax cuts should let them keep more of their money. But Romney’s formulation—“ use precious dollars to reduce taxes”—assumes that the dollars are his to “focus,” i.e. distribute, according to need.  Again, it’s a defensible worldview. But it’s fundamentally liberal.

Don’t get me wrong. Romney’s positions on taxes, regulation, and military spending put him clearly in the right half of the political spectrum. But his comments last night show a leakage of liberal sentiments well before the general election. Maybe he thinks the nomination is sewn up. Maybe, if he keeps talking this way, it won’t be.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: