Six Things We'll Never Know about Mitt Romney

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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It's standard for conservatives to complain that the media was in the tank for President Barack Obama. Witness National Review Online's Michael Walsh, who blames George Stephanopolous personally for Mitt Romney's loss, and urges: "Republicans should never again agree to any debate moderated by any member of the MSM."

But a media putting its professional interests first would have pulled as hard as possible for Romney, whose administration would have been far more interesting to cover than Obama's.

When America chose Barack Obama, it was doing the equivalent of taking $500 in cash from Monty Hall: We knew what we were getting, and it's not that much but at least it's something.

Let's face it: The next two years are going to be boring. They'll be a lot like the last two, with as little policymaking as possible in Washington.

The impact for me, personally, is that I will be forced back into covering state budgets. I'm going to start writing about pension discount rates again. I may even have to travel to places like Sacramento.

If Obama was the guaranteed cash, Romney was what's behind Door #1. His presidency could have been the equivalent of a new Buick LaCrosse or a monkey riding a tricycle. His presidency could have been all sorts of things, but it couldn't have been boring.

Here is just a partial list of the questions the media will never get to answer, now that Mitt Romney has lost his last campaign:

1. Which Mitt was the real Mitt? Romney started his political career as a moderate who promised that he'd be better on gay rights than Ted Kennedy. He ran for governor as a centrist, saying "I think people recognize that I'm not a partisan Republican, that I'm someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive." (This was when I worked for Romney, as an intern during college.)

When Romney started seeking the Republican nomination for president, he lurched to the right. His previous pledge to "preserve and protect a woman's right to choose" gave way to a strong anti-abortion stance. He called himself "severely conservative." He proposed a 20 percent across-the-board cut in income tax rates that would come back to haunt him. Then in the fall it was back to the center again.

We'll never know which of these Romneys would have actually occupied the Oval Office. Liberals spent the campaign telling the convenient story that Romney would have no choice but to march in lockstep with Tea Party Republicans (convenient because it was a good argument for moderates to back Obama).

But Romney could have gotten a lot of mileage from governing Andrew Cuomo-style, forging a moderate course over the objection of his unpopular co-partisans in the legislature. He would have been helped by the fact that Democrats would have kept their Senate majority even if he had won the presidential race: being a moderate would have positioned him as a dealmaker between the House and the Senate. But we'll never know if he would have taken that course.

2. Was there a Secret Economic Plan? As I wrote this summer, Mitt Romney's economic plan was so vacuous and off-point that he had to have another, secret one in reserve. Maybe he was going to push the Fed in a dovish direction, or maybe he would have Glenn Hubbard put together an aggressive mortgage modification program.

Some other observers offered modified versions of the Secret Economic Plan thesis. Joe Weisenthal said Romney would govern as a closet Keynesian, going through with his plans for tax cuts but not spending cuts and stimulating a stronger recovery than Obama. Matt Yglesias proposed that Romney's secret plan was to do nothing at all and inspire American business into recovery by his mere presence. (That last plan probably wouldn't have worked too well.)

Any of these theories could have been right -- or maybe Romney really did plan to punish the country with premature fiscal austerity and draconian entitlement cuts along the lines of the Ryan budget. My greatest regret about Romney's loss is that I will never know if I was right.

3. Would he have really started a trade war with China? Romney repeatedly pledged to "get tough" on China by declaring it a currency manipulator. He said he would impose tariffs on Chinese goods if China did not allow the Renminbi to further appreciate.

This was a really dumb idea, but the consensus of free-traders on the right was that Romney was bluffing, much like Obama when he promised in 2008 that he would renegotiate NAFTA if elected. Now the question is academic.

4. How about a war with Iran? Would we have had one of those? Romney staffed up his campaign with neoconservative foreign policy advisers and chided Obama for insufficient saber-rattling in the Middle East. But then he appointed the realist Robert Zoellick to head his foreign policy transition. In the foreign policy debate, he adopted the confusing posture of bear-hugging Barack Obama's actual foreign policy positions while attacking the Obama foreign policy as a failure.

My sense of Romney's temperament had long been that he would view foreign wars as an unacceptable time and money suck. But Romney's apparently emotional reaction to the Egyptian embassy statement led me to wonder if Romney was sincere in his view that America must never apologize -- a sentiment that could lead us into war.

5. What was in those tax returns, anyway? Romney kept refusing to release any tax returns from before 2010, and after asking about them for a while, the media eventually got bored and moved on. When he released his 2011 tax return, Romney revealed that he had made a bizarre choice -- he declined to take $1.75 million in available deductions in order to ensure that his tax rate would be at least 13 percent.

Romney's pre-2010 tax returns would likely have remained a mystery even if he had won the election. But he would have faced pressure to demonstrate that he kept his promise not to amend his 2011 tax return to claim those deductions. As a private citizen, Romney will be able to amend that tax return and nobody will ever know.

6. Why did Romney even want to be president? The main thing an outside observer could tell from how Mitt Romney spent the last ten years of his life was that he really, really wanted to be president. He treated his various electorates like management consulting clients, tailoring his views and principles to match their needs and desires.

The man would apparently suffer any indignity to reach the presidency. He was even willing to suck up to Donald Trump.

But we will never know why Romney wanted so desperately to be president. He seemed convinced that his managerial skill and corporate turnaround experience made him ideally suited to the presidency. But to what end? If he knew he could turn around the country, where did he hope to take it?

Romney's desperation to win was what made me skeptical of the liberal narrative that Romney would be a Tea Party rubber stamp. I didn't believe that Romney would remake himself over and over again in pursuit of the presidency so he could get to Washington and take orders from Eric Cantor. He had to have goals for governing that would be more fun than that.

But what those goals were, I can't say, and neither can anyone but Romney himself. I'm hoping he'll write a Tell All book, explaining why he wanted to be President and what he hoped to do with, and to, the country.

If you're a contestant on Let's Make a Deal, and you take the guaranteed cash, the host still shows you what was behind the door. People want to know what option they turned down. It would only be polite for Romney to show us what he was hiding.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.