Mitt Romney’s legacy: Trashing their defeated candidate is doing Republicans a power of good

The Economist, Lexington

LIKE a crisis, a good scapegoat is a terrible thing to waste. Just now Mitt Romney is proving a fine one for Republicans, as they chew over defeat and their movement’s future. Never loved by the rank-and-file, Mr Romney finds himself portrayed as a gaffe-prone plutocrat who left little mark on the party. Sitting in enforced retirement, harassed by photographers when he ventures out (snatched images include the former-future-president filling up his car and visiting Disneyland), Mr Romney could be forgiven for feeling a bit aggrieved. Many attacks on him are exaggerated or tinged with humbug. Besides, in large part Mr Romney was the (willing) victim of a primary system that prodded candidates to take ferocious positions that were catnip to partisans, but poison to the general electorate.

Yet fair or unfair, the trashing of Mr Romney should be welcomed, because it shows signs of reflection among those now vying to lead the party. Mr Romney faces two main charges. First, he allowed the Republicans to be seen as a party of the rich. Second, he seemed to scorn social mobility. Exhibit A for both charges is the moment when Mr Romney was secretly filmed at a dinner with donors asserting that 47% of Americans are Democratic voters “no matter what” because they are dependent on government largesse, pay no federal income tax and are thus deaf to arguments about low taxes or personal responsibility.

In recent days, a string of grandees have singled out those comments for attack. Mitch Daniels, the outgoing governor of Indiana, calls the 47% incident a “self-inflicted fatal blow”, compounded shortly after the election when Mr Romney blamed defeat on voters greedy for government “gifts”. Ted Cruz, a senator-elect from Texas, claims (rather implausibly) that the 47% comments—rather than Republican hostility to immigration—explain Mr Romney’s dire showing among Latinos. Mr Romney’s running-mate, Paul Ryan, has let it be known that he “seethed” about his boss’s blunder.

A defence of Mr Romney would call all this outrage overdone. Stressing the interests of business and of wealth-creators is not usually a crime among conservatives. His comments were crass and unfair to millions of hard-working or retired Americans who receive government support, but he is hardly the first Republican to divide America into taxpaying “makers” and welfare-claiming “takers”. Yet to defend Mr Romney is to miss the point. Though it is dressed up as a post-mortem, the dissection of his candidacy is not about the past. Instead it heralds a fight about the future.

In the short term, a desire to shake the “party of the rich” tag is prodding some congressional Republicans to urge pragmatism in the current budget wrangle with Barack Obama. The White House has laid a trap in plain sight, demanding that the Republican-held House of Representatives accept tax rises for the wealthy, or trigger a rise in taxes for all at the end of the year. Some Republicans are now stressing the risks of sticking to a stance that Mr Obama can portray as putting “millionaires and billionaires” first.

Tom Cole, an Oklahoma congressman who has broken ranks to urge his fellow Republicans to do a deal with Mr Obama, dislikes raising taxes on the rich. But Mr Cole, a flinty conservative in other respects, says that his first loyalty is to constituents from his far-from-wealthy district, who would suffer if America fell off a year-end fiscal cliff. As for dependency, his voters hate government waste, says Mr Cole, but draw a distinction between those in need of state help and those for whom it is a “way of life”.

Republicans must not be the party of “big government, big banks, big business or big anything,” argues Mike Fitzpatrick, an independent-minded Republican handily re-elected by a Pennsylvania district which backed Mr Obama for the presidency. His party should oppose policies that trap people in dependence, he says, but never scorn the individuals trapped by those policies.

Conservatives relearning compassion

To thoughtful conservatives, Mr Romney’s great crime in writing off Americans on welfare was to imply that poverty might be a permanent condition, not an ill best cured with a dose of economic opportunity. A rush to repudiate that error is under way. A Washington dinner on December 4th, featuring two likely White House contenders in 2016—Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida, and Mr Ryan—turned into a contest of ideas to advance social mobility. Mr Ryan made his name as a spending hawk. But in his speech, alongside jokes about booking dinner with Mr Rubio in the primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he pleaded with his party to avoid writing off the poor or dividing Americans into “our” and “their” voters. Sounding faintly like George W. Bush before 2000, Mr Ryan called for government to work with religious and voluntary groups on poverty, and argued that welfare-to-work reforms crafted by Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress should be a model for reshaping all means-tested schemes.

Mr Rubio invoked his story as the child of Cuban migrants, saying that without American social mobility, he would probably have grown up a “very opinionated bartender”. He had his own rebuke for Mr Romney, condemning those who say that lots of Americans just “want things” from the government. Instead, Mr Rubio offered a wonkish menu of reforms to education, health care and taxes to promote “social well-being”.

Compassion, in short, is once more at the front of the conservative lexicon. It may be small comfort for Mr Romney, but his scapegoating is serving a purpose. His negative example is prodding party leaders to challenge the sour confines of a core-vote strategy (woo diehard supporters and independents, don’t bother with the other side) that has run its course. In that alone, if in little else, the defeated candidate has left a valuable legacy.

The article appeared on the Dec. 8 print edition of the Economist

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