Tacking Toward the Jacksonians

Walter Russell Mead pinpoints why Mitt Romney’s performance last night was a good one and, simultaneously, why I’m uneasy about a Romney presidency:

This was not just about optics. Romney chose last night as his moment to shift toward this high center ground in American politics. He is not an austerity president or a penny pincher where causes dear to Jacksonian hearts are involved. He wants to be an education president and hopes we hire lots of new teachers, he incorporated his Massachusetts health care plan into his narrative and attacked Dodd-Frank from the left as a sell-out to big banks — and an assault on the right of Americans to get cheap mortgages. He pledged to make sure the share of the tax load paid by the rich would not decrease on his watch and he promised no tax cuts that would increase the deficit. This may not be libertarian, small government orthodoxy, but it is mainstream Jacksonianism. Romney is attempting to brand himself as a red-blooded American rather than as a doctrinaire conservative in the race. He wants to run against Barack Obama like John Wayne versus Barney Fife — or Ronald Reagan versus Jimmy Carter.

It was a shift; his enemies might well call it a flip flop. It was also well timed and well calibrated; the right of his party has been mollified by the Paul Ryan selection and now in the heat of the race, GOP conservatives will stand by their man. The Republicans want to win, and they will applaud Romney’s ingenuity rather than complain about his doctrinal deviations as he embraces the pro-defense, pro-middle class, anti-elite rhetoric of Jacksonian democracy.

Today’s Wilsonians are either neo-conservatives, intent on bringing democracy to benighted countries at the point of a gun, or, if of the left, armed with even greater weapons of mass destruction—educating women and birth control. Today’s Hamiltonians, optimistic realists and mostly business-oriented, undoubtedly consider Mitt Romney one of their own.

What few Jeffersonians there are today have largely been without influence in the national discourse for a generation or more. Jacksonians, ironically and of somewhat different stripes, form the backbone of both political parties. If Mitt Romney is trying to position himself as a Jacksonian, it’s a shrewd move.

12 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    Mead’s reading too much into the exchanges to force-fit categories. Romney attacked Dodd-Frank from the left, the same way many people (like Drew) attack Dodd-Frank from the right — it guarantees select too-big-too-fail banks and its putting small banks out of business. Romney didn’t talk about a right to a cheap mortgage, he said Dodd-Frank correctly sought to restrict issuance of mortgages to unqualified borrowers, but by failing to define a qualified mortgage, the unintended consequence was regulatory uncertainty and overly-reluctant lending practices.

    The thrust of this argument was that the regulations were not thought through very well, they have unintended consequences and Romney believes he can do it better. He was positioning himself as a better technocrat.

  • Steve Link

    So which Romney will govern? This one or the severely conservative one? How can you be good leader or manager with no consistency? No integrity?


  • Derek Thompson had a good turn of phrase for that this morning. Something to the effect that Mitt Romney was a businessman so highly polished that he reflected whatever was around him. Back in the day we had a term we’d use to refer to managers like that: snakes. Twisty and turny, needed to be watched very closely. They could be very effective managers but they weren’t a great deal of fun to work for. You had to watch your rear end all of the time.

  • steve Link

    Ever read Snakes In Suits? Just got home and read most of the debate. So much of what he said is so different than what he has been saying. He is also, still, short on specifics. He says he will not raise taxes on the middle class, period. We just have to trust him. Why? Show us your numbers. He already promised a 20% across the board tax cut, increased defense spending, and no changes to Medicare and Social Security. He, surely, knows his way around a balance sheet. How does he keep all of these promises?


  • jan Link


    What promises has Obama kept? Where and why is Obama any better than what you might get from Romney? Why is someone like Romney, who has had a long term record of success in not only business, but not too bad of a record of governing in MA, put under a bigger microscope than our current president?

    I keep reading all the mistrust in Romney doing or being what he is supposed to do or be. But, there doesn’t seem to be any counter scrutiny with who we already have. Are you in such a comfort zone with Obama, do you think situations like Benghazi were handled so well and openly, that the ME is out of the terrorism column now that OBL is dead, that our economy is soaring, investors are teething to place money in expanding their business….what are the criteria for those of you who are supporting Obama over another unmeasured, but reasonable appearing business guy?

  • PD Shaw Link

    steve, I can recall Obama’s promise of a specific timetable to leave Iraq, which he bludgeoned his primary opponents with over and over again, giving way to a willingness to consider “facts on the ground” during the debate with McCain. By the time George W was debating Gore, the Republican campaign had set out to erase all policy differences between Bush and Gore, except for taxes and personality, much to Gore’s annoyance. I don’t think Presidential candidates are punished for moving to the center or indicating a willingness to consider the other’s ideas in the general election. Kerry would be the only exception I can think of, but he went back and forth on Iraq.

  • steve Link

    @PD, jan- Romney is doing what I expected him to do, but several months ago. Once a candidate wins the primary, they almost always tack back towards the middle. It is what you do if you want to win. Romney has been different. If anything, he went even further to the right. Now we have this very abrupt turn towards the middle. I dont remember this happening before.

    I am alos specifically concerned about his refusal to tell us how he will accomplish what he promises. He has been very specific about tax cuts, so clearly he is able to be specific about those things he values. He has promised a 20% tax cut, and has set about 70% of the budget off limits. Ok, he was a businessman. Tell me how he makes this budget work? How is he different from every other GOP president since 1980? Lucy anyone?

    “What promises has Obama kept?”

    They devote whole areas of fact checking to this topic. Like most presidents, he has kept most of his promises. The ones he has not kept are mostly ones over which he did not have executive power and should not have made the promise. I think foreign policy has gone fairly well. On issues like Benghazi I don’t see the sense in jumping in early when we dont know everything. Besides, most of the debate has been about how Obama people have handled this on TV, not how they handled the consulate. I have no interest in this kind of stuff at all. I think the issue of what to do with our ambassadors, whether to put them in all Green Zone type embassies, or let them remain accessible, is a tough decision with lots of considerations. It needs serious discussion, not tribal affiliation. At any rate, you have it right here…..

    “what are the criteria for those of you who are supporting Obama over another unmeasured, but reasonable appearing business guy?”

    If you are a business guy, a master of numbers and budgets, show me how you will get where you say you want to go. Which tax expenditures go? What spending gets cut? In particular, I really need to know what you will do with Medicare. Your VP pick had a budget that included Medicare cuts, just like OBama’s. You appear to have decided you need the old people vote? How will you then cut Medicare in the future, risking the loss of other votes? You want no distance between us and a small client state? How do you treat with the numerous and larger Muslim countries around the world? Are you capable of any foreign policy approach that does not amount to bluster and trying to sound tough? Repeal and replace Dodd-Frank and Obamacare? With what?

    Until I see evidence otherwise, I will assume Romney is like all other conservatives. Tax cuts ? Yes. Spending cuts? Not if they are unpopular and we might lose elections. War? Hell yes.

    HAs Obama been disappointing? Yes. Could Romney be better? Yes, if he was the Romney of 2003, at least on domestic issues. (He would still probably think Russia is our number one problem.) If he is the Romney of September? No.


  • TastyBits Link


    … (He would still probably think Russia is our number one problem.) …

    China and Russia are the top two problems for the US. I would put China as number one, but Russia is a close second.

  • Andy Link


    He says he will not raise taxes on the middle class, period. We just have to trust him.

    The short answer is he can’t. Those tax increases would have to pass both the House and Senate – what are the chances of that? Should hell freeze over and there’s bipartisan support for a middle class tax hike in the Congress and Senate, then he can probably safely renig on his promise.

    Now we have this very abrupt turn towards the middle. I dont remember this happening before.

    That’s pretty normal, isn’t it? Candidates from both parties have to pander to the base during the primaries and then they always move to the middle for the general election.

    Until I see evidence otherwise, I will assume Romney is like all other conservatives. Tax cuts ? Yes. Spending cuts? Not if they are unpopular and we might lose elections. War? Hell yes.

    I agree with that except that war is pretty bipartisan.

  • jan Link


    Ryan earlier touched on the reasons, in a Chris Wallace interview, why there are no real specifics dealing with deductions, in that they want to consult with Congress first, utilizing a theme of cooperative transparency, instead of first constructing a plan under a unilateral decision-making process. In my way of thinking this infers consultation with other members of Congress to come up with a list of agreed upon deductions, rather than simply giving Congress a pre-made list with instructions to pass it.

    Romney expanded on this way of governing further, in last night’s debate, in saying he didn’t believe in “It’s my way or the highway approach” in coming up with solutions for problems. Romney exemplified this kind of ‘leadership’ in MA when he tackled HC, by first inviting an array of bipartisan people in to see the best options there were for accomplishing the HC mission. And, then he worked even-handedly with his very democratic congress to hammer out an almost unanimous deal — something like only 2 people voted against it.

    Regarding medicare, my understanding is that rectifying it’s problems involve an intrinsic restructuring for younger people, rather than just cuts to and redistribution of existing funding. Romney/Ryan have reiterated that the 55 and over crowd will not being effected by any changes, while younger people would have options of either government HC or getting their own insurance with some kind of set financial assistance from the government to buy that insurance. I personally would opt for the latter if given the chance. He also has implied that means testing might be on the table, giving less financial assistance to those who don’t need it.

    Again, for a challenger running for office I think people are asking far more iron-clad policy specifics from Romney than they ever asked of Obama when he ran in ’08. This also seems to be a continuing trend in ’12, as there are very few details either being demanded of Obama or being voluntarily offered by him as to how he plans to fix the economy in the next 4 years (except to raise taxes on the ‘rich.’). Now, if he had done a splendid job in his tenure as POTUS, attaining most of the economic stats that he vowed he would do, bringing down UE, lowering the deficit, ramping up the economy showing a decent growth figure, then I could understand that people would say actions are more significant than words. But, he has done none of this, and yet people are still having seemingly blind faith in him, that somehow his second term will provide new, improved results under the same methodology. (?????????)

  • Icepick Link

    WOW, what a crock on the UE numbers! Another weak report (even the revisions don’t help that much) but the UE-3 number fell 0,3%! Yeah, they’re cheating like Hell at the BLS!

  • The situation was in flux when Obama took office, Jan.

    Now we want more specifics.

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