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Judging Mitt Romney

The Economist endorsed Barack Obama this week, to the delight of a lot of left-ish people who have taken great glee in brandishing it at an increasingly conservative, far-from-the-centre Republican Party. Some people who don't agree with the endorsement have tried to fight back, with varying degrees of care. I'm going to ignore the laughable ones that put The Economist in a "liberal establishment" that is inherently biased to the left and to Obama. But Ramesh Ponnuru's response is a bit more nuanced and poses some interesting questions.

As a caveat, I say a bit more nuanced. He completely assumes his position on abortion, and wishes away the substance of Obama's deficit-reduction position, one which came out in debt-ceiling negotiations, by sneaking "in public" into a sentence. It's a bit unsavoury.

But I want to focus on the substantive defence of Mitt Romney. The Economist's charge is essentially that he has changed position too often, and that many of the positions he now holds (or at least presumably still holds from the primaries) are just silly:
Mr Romney seems too ready to bomb Iran, too uncritically supportive of Israel and cruelly wrong in his belief in “the Palestinians not wanting to see peace”. The bellicosity could start on the first day of his presidency, when he has vowed to list China as a currency manipulator—a pointless provocation to its new leadership that could easily degenerate into a trade war...far from being the voice of fiscal prudence, Mr Romney wants to start with huge tax cuts (which will disproportionately favour the wealthy), while dramatically increasing defence spending. Together those measures would add $7 trillion to the ten-year deficit. He would balance the books through eliminating loopholes (a good idea, but he will not specify which ones) and through savage cuts to programmes that help America’s poor (a bad idea, which will increase inequality still further) ... Mr Romney is still in the cloud-cuckoo-land of thinking you can do it entirely through spending cuts.
Pretty fair. The Ponnuru response is that it's unreasonable to judge somebody based on promises that are either just lies (some of the crazier primary pandering) or will be subject to lots of watering down. On the deficit number:
The assumptions behind thinking that number meaningful are that a) Romney will find no tax breaks to scale back, b) he will proceed with the tax-rate reductions anyway,...As for the defense cuts, you know which “sensible supporters” of his say he wouldn’t push defense spending to 4 percent of GDP “in current circumstances”? The ones who work for his campaign!
And on the social issues The Economist raises:
Under a President Romney, I assume that same-sex marriage will continue to advance in the states.
The thing is, none of these claims are really backed up by explicit parts of his candidacy. Certainly the Romney campaign hasn't said that it will do smaller tax cuts if it can't find enough deductions to cover the cost, or really given any indication of what would happen if his tax plan can't be realised in its entirety (which the consensus says it just can't, for mathematical reasons as much as political ones). Romney's only real comments on same-sex marriage have been repeated rejection and a reluctant primary-season endorsement of some kind of sanctity-of-marriage amendment to the Constitution, that is, something that would stop state-by-state progress. So it's being particularly charitable to grant state progress on that front.

But more broadly, it's all very well to say predictively what you think would happen if Romney got elected and his plans turned out to be impossible carry out. But that predictive exercise should really be separate from the judgement of who to vote for. Otherwise Herman Cain, who advocated a return to the gold standard and a really really really ridiculous tax plan, but who didn't seem as determined to get that stuff as Ron Paul or other libertarians, would be a pretty okay candidate. Because predict what would happen if Herman Cain had sailed into office (putting aside, briefly and with great apology, the terribleness of this hypothetical) and you wouldn't end up with the gold standard and 9-9-9. You'd end up with something that looked a lot like the status quo, with nods to the right but also the reality of an action-stopping Congressional system.

Not inspiring. But if Herman Cain was running against some alternative candidate who you didn't like much, then this prediction (tending to nothing) will probably look more appealing than the alternative with some concrete ideas you don't like. So the best strategy to beat someone vaguely unpopular is not just the generally accepted thing - make it about them by making your platform inoffensive - but a much more extreme version, where you make it about them by making your platform outright ridiculous or even literally impossible so that it can't be about anything else. That's clearly a shocking result, and the way to avoid it is by not indulging in this predictive stuff, but actually judging people on what they say, so the strategy doesn't work. All of which means that The Economist has it basically right, and Ponnuru and kind are too generous.

TOTALLY UNINFORMED PREDICTION: Obama 300 (Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada) over Romney 238 (Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado). I didn't look at any polls before I did that, so get ready to laugh at me!
(I used this.)