Why Mitt Romney Won't Take a Stand

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Mitt Romney responded to the Supreme Court’s upholding of the health-care law last Thursday with a short, blunt declaration of what he would do about it if elected president. “What the court did not do on its last day in session, I will do on my first day,” he said. “I will act to repeal Obamacare.” Like many other Republicans, Romney has said he wants to “repeal and replace” the health-care law. But however much he’s pressed, he offers few specifics about what he would replace it with.

This has become a familiar pattern: a ringing affirmation of some major policy difference with President Obama, followed by a lot of vagueness about what precisely he would do instead.

Take deficit reduction. Romney has promised to extend the entire Bush tax cut, reduce marginal rates by an additional 20 percent, cut corporate rates, and still bring down the deficit. He has said he’ll pay for this by closing loopholes and deductions, but he won’t identify which ones. His campaign initially indicated it would clarify this once Romney had sewn up the nomination. Months later, the details are still not forthcoming. Yet he routinely gives speeches denouncing Obama over the deficit and promising—somehow—to bring it under control.

Or take immigration. During the primaries, Romney attacked opponents such as Rick Perry from the right and famously called on illegal immigrants to “self-deport.” This put him in some jeopardy, since Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Obama’s recent decision to stop deporting and start issuing work permits to young, undocumented immigrants—a limited version of the Dream Act reforms—was designed in part to exacerbate this problem; Romney has said point-blank in the past that he’d veto the Dream Act. Naturally, reporters wanted his response. But in a statement, and then in a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials, Romney wouldn’t say what his position was or whether he’d overturn Obama’s executive action.

Taken together, I’ve come to think of these speeches, statements, and dodgy rebuttals as the Romney Fog Machine: a great outpouring of words intended to obscure, rather than clarify, whatever issue they’re ostensibly addressing.

His campaign’s greatest obfuscation was its response to the Supreme Court’s voiding of much of Arizona’s draconian immigration law. Romney’s statement was magnificently vague, leaving unclear whether he still supported the law, as he once had.

Romney has plainly calculated that he can win without explaining what he’ll do as president and instead seems intent on becoming the “generic Republican candidate” that pollsters include in surveys (and that often outperform real Republicans). He seems to be making two assumptions: that the country is in such dire shape that simply being against Obama is enough, and that his background at Bain Capital is a sufficient qualification to get him elected. His campaign is a sustained exercise in avoiding risk.

To Romney, risk avoidance is more than a campaign strategy—it’s endemic. As the Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish and Scott Helman recount in The Real Romney, their recent biography, Romney initially declined to become CEO of Bain Capital for fear that it might fail and damage his career prospects. Only after receiving assurances that his bosses would concoct a cover story and restore Romney’s full salary and position in the event of failure did he agree.

A few years ago, a former partner at Bain Capital with Romney—who asked not to be named talking about private events—explained to me that this impulse to be extremely averse to downside risk had been key to Bain’s early success. In the mid-1980s, he said, once this success was evident, the firm conducted a study to understand better what had brought it about. Two things jumped out: the failure rate of their deals was practically zero, and in the early years, he said, all their deals had downside risk protection. In the worst case, he said, they had assets they could sell for 90 percent of what they’d paid. Romney’s formative professional experience, the partner explained, was protecting the investments of Bain’s founders.

In politics, downside risk is always glaringly evident, and Romney has avoided it as scrupulously as a candidate as he did as a CEO. But the danger in avoiding every risk, to the point of becoming generic, is that others will fill in whatever you’re withholding.

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Obama opening up a lead in many swing states because voters there have a more negative impression of Romney than those elsewhere. It looks as if the fusillade of Bain-focused attack ads from Obama-allied super PACs has begun filling in the details of Romney’s record—and suggesting all the awful things he’d do as president. Romney obviously isn’t offering much in the way of rebuttal. If these numbers are an indication of where things are heading, he’s in for a much tougher race than he seems to have anticipated.

Romney is obviously alert to the risk of taking unpopular (or even mildly controversial) positions like the ones he has been avoiding. But there’s also risk in appearing to stand for nothing at all.

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