Undoubtedly, Mitt Romney is far cry from what capitalists would consider an ideal candidate to challenge President Obama in the 2012 election cycle. As Slade Mendenhall noted over a year ago when Romney declared his candidacy, even at moments in which Romney is “seemingly allied with the newly emboldened small-government sector in American conservatism, he still fails to understand the principles at the base of their advocacy.” This is certainly true of the former Massachusetts governor on many levels, as has been demonstrated throughout his campaign which has been riddled with contradictions, inconsistency, and just general politicking.
Though such behavior is contemptible, it does not particularly make him anymore vulnerable in the upcoming election than any other run-of-the-mill politician who exhibits the exact same characteristics, President Obama included. But Romney is entering the final stage of the 2012 presidential cycle with a distinct disadvantage, and it is disadvantage he continues to thrust on himself: he refuses to speak on principled terms.
This is due, in part, to the fact that Mitt Romney lacks principles. He is a pragmatist. I quote from my essay “Understanding Idealism”:
“When an individual adheres to the doctrine of pragmatism, their only concern is for the range-of-the-moment, the immediately expedient, or the currently convenient. The pragmatists do not base their actions off any long-term, lasting value, but instead off the metaphysical facts and present context of a situation so as to achieve whatever short-range goal is achievable at that time… Discovering lasting solutions to any adversity they face is not the ultimate goal of the pragmatists. Instead, the pragmatists simply seek to mitigate the effects of a temporary situation as cost-effectively as possible without any concern for the ultimate results of the tradeoffs they are making.”
The notion of “long-term pragmatism” is a contradiction in terms. Pragmatism necessarily disregards all the effects of one’s actions beyond an extremely limited time horizon. For example, it may very well be “pragmatic” to build a jet plane out of second-hand materials if one’s goal is to save money during construction, but this in no way serves one’s longer-term self-interests once one gets – or at least attempts to get – airborne in such a craft. In a like manner, it may very well be “pragmatic” for Romney to change his positions on a whim to follow the fleeting passions of the public so as to get elected and maintain popularity in office, but this absolutely rejects the possibility of consistently acting in a way which will recognize man’s rights and save this country from collapse into dictatorship.
The reason for a pragmatist’s inconsistency in action, let alone results, has already been stated: pragmatism rejects any and all forms of principles. But what are principles? Ayn Rand defines a principle best within Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal in “The Anatomy of Compromise” as “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.”1 Principles isolate the epistemologically essential nature of a given set of concretes, allowing man to see and respond to their true nature regardless of the accidental (i.e. non-essential) characteristics of each individual unit. A man without principles treats every situation as unique, entirely disconnected from all others. To employ Rand’s example, this is like a man trying to travel from coast to coast without consulting a roadmap, treating each turn as distinct and unrelated to all the others. The natural result is that man never arrives at his destination.
But as I said earlier, Mitt Romney’s handicap goes beyond his own personal lack of principles. After all, many politicians today are equally unprincipled. But Romney’s pragmatism is more than simply refusing to act on principled terms. He cannot even feign a principled argument.
This is no unimportant distinction. As it is, many politicians will speak and campaign on principled terms, even if they themselves later prove unable to turn their words into actions. Others argue in a principled fashion, but simply hold to the wrong principles. But Romney doesn’t even have incorrect principles to cling to.
Examine Romney’s recent response to the Obamacare ruling. MSNBC host Chuck Todd asked Mitt Romney’s chief of staff Eric Fehrnstrom if Romney “believes that you shouldn’t call the tax penalty a tax, you should call it a penalty or a fee or a fine.” Fehrnstrom responded positively, saying that Romney does agree with that assessment. Less than a week later, Romney appeared on CBS to (unsurprisingly) reverse his position:
“Well, the Supreme Court has the final word. And their final word is that Obamacare is a tax. So it’s a tax. They decided it was constitutional. So it is a tax and it’s constitutional. That’s the final word. That’s what it is.”
How exactly does the Court’s classification of the individual mandate within Obamacare as a “tax” rather than a “penalty” somehow change its constitutional standing? By what standard does the fact that the individual mandate is a tax change its nature anymore – morally, politically, or constitutionally – than if it were a penalty? Rather than arguing that the law is unjust and unconstitutional on principle regardless of semantic minutiae, Mitt Romney refrains from arguing past these superficialities, knowing that he can claim no greater moral standing considering that he has passed and continues to support similar legislation.
Take note of Romney’s continual support of his own brand of statism in Massachusetts. To this day, Romney recurrently insists that his healthcare overhaul – a law which has the exact same individual mandate as Obamacare – is somehow of different status than the federal legislation fashioned after his own. In Republican primary debates, it was not uncommon for Romney to defend Romneycare on the grounds that “it worked for the people of Massachusetts” though he claimed that he would not support it on the federal level. Are there any essential differences between such statism simply because it occurs at one level of our federal system instead of another? No, and if Romney knows it, he refuses to show it.
Even when Romney appears to express some level of principle with muscular campaign rhetoric like, “Obamacare was bad law yesterday. It’s a bad law today,” one has to remember his reasoning behind such a conclusion. It is not “bad” because of any overarching reason about the nature of such laws, but because, given the current context and format of the law, it does not “work” for the American people like similar legislation “worked” for the people of Massachusetts. Just look at the new mantra of the Romney campaign: “Repeal & Replace Obamacare.”
Why does this hurt Mitt Romney politically? Because he is left with no means of opposing President Obama except through attempting to argue that his brand of government regulation is somehow better than President Obama’s, but even this is an impossible feat. There are no standards which he can employ to explain why his policies are better, even if those standards are irrational.
Even worse, Romney will have to rely on the campaign tactic of coalition-building, or attempting to make himself appear appealing to various “blocks” of the voting public. The goal, of course, is to pick the special interests with which to ally oneself so as to build a larger coalition than one’s opponent. But as Rand noted in an interview entitled “The Significance of the Goldwater Campaign,” “When he [a candidate] appeals to special interests or special prejudice, he may lose the votes of other groups or enlightened voters anywhere.” Rather than employing moral, principled stances to attract voters through reason, such tactics try to garner support for a candidate by appealing to irrational, collectivist sentiments of the different “blocks” of voters.
Though Obama is certainly doing the exact same thing, he holds a distinct advantage over Romney. In his own twisted way, Barack Obama campaigns on principles, at least a dime store, low-Y-axis version of them. He does not act on those principles, and in fact pursues nihilist policies in opposition to all principles and values, but he still carries himself as one on a morally righteous mission. He is the candidate who supports “equal access to healthcare,” who believes everyone should “pay their fair share,” and who stands for “economic and social justice.” All Romney can do is sit idly by and say, “I don’t support those things.” Thus, he concedes that the moral ground rests with his opponent, as he has none to offer himself.
Obama himself maintains a comfortable position on Mendenhall’s Y-axis of American politics, staying high enough on the axis to give himself an aura of moral legitimacy which Romney refuses to contest while also staying low enough to not reveal the true nature of his policies in all their naked depravity. Can his policies actually stand up to true moral opposition? Absolutely not, but if Romney is capable of mustering any moral opposition to President Obama, he is not displaying it.
And ultimately, this is likely to prove detrimental to Mitt Romney’s campaign. Supporting a man without principle is a much harder pill to swallow than supporting a man with incorrect principles. There is at least one study by a professor of political science which supports as much. In his book The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric, Prof. Morgan Marietta examined “the use of absolutist claims–and appeals to what a speaker deems to be universal truths” in American politics. These “absolutist claims” and “universal truths” are other names for principles and ideals.
Throughout the Bush Administration, Marietta found that it was conservatives who employed “sacred rhetoric” (i.e. appeals to principle) more than their liberal and leftist opponents. This was especially true of George Bush against his challengers in 2000 and 2004. Needless to say, Bush won both elections. Moreover, Marietta’s studies determined that voters’ support of a candidate on a given issue was closely linked to that candidate’s use of “sacred rhetoric” when discussing or debating them.
This should be relatively expected information, and commendable insofar as it demonstrates that the public, at the very least, finds the concept of a principled candidate appealing. If a candidate fails to ignite a sense of moral righteousness in voters, those who would normally vote for him will feel no urgency to go out to the polls on Election Day. And perhaps more importantly, he loses the interest of those he has yet to convince. Voters who themselves lack particularly principled positions are more likely to drift towards the candidate whose views and policies appear to be moral, agreeable, and preferable prima facie. If a candidate refuses to challenge these shallow assumptions and show them for what they are (which requires principles), he injures his own chances of success.
But one should not take this evaluation as proof positive of Mitt Romney’s defeat in November. Indeed, elections are multivariable functions and the outcome of an election is certainly not wholly contingent on this single issue. But it is an important issue, and it does hinder Romney’s chances of success.
Certainly, Mitt Romney has a chance of winning the election and replacing President Obama. But Romney, and the Republican Party in general, must recognize that principles matter. They guide man’s actions, and for the better part of the last 100 years, talk of principle has slowly eroded from the public conversation. The Tea Party has done will to restore principled political discussion in the 21st Century, and they have so far been rewarded for it – though 2010 was certainly not a “Tea Party Takeover” of the House, for example, the introduction of principled discussion assisted in a massive partisan swing in the House of Representatives for the Republicans.
Even so, the Tea Party, let alone the American public and government as a whole, has not fully achieved a consistently and explicitly capitalist set of principles. Out of the possible candidates for the Republican nomination, Romney seemed – and still seems – least of all likely to achieve said principles. And so long as Romney forgoes principles – be they capitalist or not – in favor of “practicality,” it will be to the benefit of a nihilist that he does so.
1. Rand, Ayn. “The Anatomy of Compromise.” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Ed. Ayn Rand. New York: Signet, 1967. 114.