How Would President Romney Govern?

December 17th, 2010 at 8:39 am David Frum | 23 Comments |

| Print

“Sincerity is everything – once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

There’s Mitt Romney’s problem in 1 sentence. He cannot fake sincerity. His insincerity is blatant, inescapable, clumsy and off-putting. Ross Douthat phrased the indictment very well in a blogpost yesterday, replying to an earlier blogpost by me.

I believe that Mitt Romney is a more serious person, and would probably be a better president, than his campaign style suggests. But issue by issue, policy by policy, that same campaign style makes it awfully hard to figure out where he would actually stand when the pandering stops and the governing begins. In the last couple years, Romney has taken high-profile positions that I agree with (opposing the G.M. bailout), high-profile positions that I disagree with (opposing the START Treaty), and high-profile positions on issues I’m uncertain about (the current tax deal). But because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.

I’ll concede the truth and power of this. Based on Mitt Romney’s campaign book (quite good if you discard the first 1/3 and the final chapter) – and some of his speeches to business audiences – I think I know what Romney would like to do as president. But faced with opposition, or a rebellion from his base, or some other difficulty: who knows?

I sometimes imagine that Romney approaches politics in the same spirit that the CEO of Darden Restaurants approaches cuisine. Darden owns Olive Garden, Longhorn steakhouses, and Red Lobster among other chains. Now suppose that Darden’s data show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining. Suppose they convert some of their Longhorn outlets to Olive Gardens. Is that “flip-flopping”? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?

Likewise, the “pro-choice” concept met public demand so long as Romney Inc. was a Boston-based senatorship and governorship-seeking enterprise. But now Romney Inc. is expanding to a national brand, with important new growth opportunities in Iowa and South Carolina. A new concept is accordingly required to serve these new markets. Again: this is not flip-flopping. It is customer service.

You may say: But what does Romney think on the inside? Which of his positions is the “real” Romney? I’d answer that question with another question. Suppose an Olive Garden customer returns to the kitchen a plate of fettuccine alfredo, complaining the pasta is overcooked. What should the manager do? Say “I disagree”? Explain that it’s a core conviction to cook pasta to a certain specified number of minutes and seconds, and if the customer doesn’t like it, she’s welcome to take her patronage elsewhere? No! It doesn’t matter what the manager “really” thinks. What matters is satisfying each and every customer who walks through the door to the very best of the manager’s ability.

Ross Douthat fails to understand that meeting customer expectations is itself a principle!

More to come…

Recent Posts by David Frum

23 Comments so far ↓

  • Chekote

    Romney is a phony. Please stop wasting time pushing him. He will not be POTUS anymore than Palin will be POTUS.

  • Houndentenor

    David, David, David,

    Do you really think there’s any chance that Romney can get past the religious right (he’s a Mormon, you know) and the Tea Party (lots of old liberal positions to flip flop on)? Really?

  • TerryF98

    Flip,Flop,Flippity Flop. Like a fish on the bank always flipping and flopping. This man has no convictions whatsoever, he is willing like McCain to take whatever position suits the moment.

    Plus he is just far to smarmy, a Mr good-hair in persona. No thanks.

  • TAZ

    I like Romney.

    I will vote for Romney.

    Yes, he is a phony, flip flopper, etc. etc. etc.

    And yes, he cannot fake sincerity.


    Thanks to Sarah Palin, reality star, media Barbie doll, political Frankenstein, he does not have to fake sincerity any more. Sarah will now capture ALL the attention for fake sincerity and take the heat from Mitt.

  • Moderate

    Let’s compare the likelihood of two interpretations for Romney’s actions.

    1) He’s the public office equivalent of a restaurant manager, and he believes some variant of “The voter is always right.”

    2) He’s a politician, and by extension full of feces.

  • dafyd

    Becareful what you wish for. In 2012, nomatter who is in the finals, All republicans including David Frum will be saying “This Is Why I Will Be Voting Republican.” The smartest republicans will once agian dumb themselves down like they did with Palin in 2008. That is why, like you wrote he is “pushing” Romney. He knows he will always vote republican.

  • Houndentenor

    Looking at the choices, I can see why some would gravitate to Romney. He could actually win if only he could get the nomination. But he can’t get the nomination.

    I think that inside the beltway types don’t understand the extent to which those of us raised in fundamentalist churches were saturated with anti-Mormon propaganda growing up. He can’t get past the South Carolina primary (nor can Giuliani).

  • Carney

    It’s important to remember that “winning” South Carolina only requires a plurality, not a majority. The more potential candidates who are base-friendly evangelicals buy into the notion that Romney’s Mormonism is an Achilles Heel, see themselves as the one the base may turn to, and thus throw their hat in the ring, the more the base vote will be split several ways, and the more likely it becomes that Romney gets his plurality, and continues on to the nomination.

    Now, it’s true that a plurality in 2012 is less decisive than it was in 2008 and prior cycles, because the GOP now allocates delegates from pre-April primaries on a proportionate rather than winner-take-all basis. Still, the fact remains.

  • llbroo49

    Houndentenor // Dec 17, 2010 at 9:47 am

    It sounds ugly (and is, in reality), but you are right. To too many Southerners (amongst others) Mormon is as foreign as Muslim.

  • armstp

    “Again: this is not flip-flopping. It is customer service.”

    Love this statement by Frum. Such BS. So it is okay for Romney to just do and say whatever, just to get the votes. He has no bedrock principals he stands on or no leadership, but rather just drift with the “customer service” wind. That is no way to run a restaurant business or a political campaign or to run for the President of the United States.

    I am really not sure what actual positives Romeny has?

    1) Business experience? so what. He never really ran a company that makes things or provides services. Bain Capital is just an investor. What exactly was his track record as even an investor? It was easy to invest in the boom times when all boats were rising. His actual business experience is fairly limited at best. He was the king of the LBO at Bain, which basically puts a lot of people out of work and transfers a lot of jobs overseas. LBO kings are not real value creators, but rather financial engineers and are part of the problem in the U.S.

    2) Positions on cultural issues? he is no longer a moderate and is a pretty hardcore conservative now. That has limited appeal to the majority of Americans.

    3) His religion scares a lot of people. Does he wear the “magical underwear”?

    4) Personality and charisma?

    I know that Romney has to turn major right to win the Republican primary, but if he stayed with his moderate Massachusetts profile he would be far better off. I will not vote for him, given his new right leanings.

  • aed

    armstp is absolutely right about Romney’s business experience and as one who has been governed by him I can assure you he is a loose suit. I think David must be enamored of him because he is still, in spite of his pandering to the far right, at heart a moderate and any moderate is better than no moderate. But beware: as Romney’s record shows, he can be co-opted by any group whatsoever, so who needs to vote for partisan (Republican) reasons for someone whose identity is always up for grabs? You might vote for him as a conservative and end up seeing him govern as something entirely different.

  • Saladdin

    I can honestly see how Romney wins the nomination, but only if Huck and Palin split SC, effectively leaving the remainder of the party to choose the most capitalistic contender remaining. The biggest question remaining is, can Romney effectively move past more seasoned candidates like Mitch Daniels or T-Paw, both of whom are personality free.

  • Arms Merchant

    Romney is the quintessential RINO. Like Crist, Murky, and McCain, he will say or do whatever it takes to get elected. His position on any given issue is always, always in the context of whether he thinks it will garner an extra vote or two.

    These people have no political philosophy or principle of governing other than, “I am the best person to tell others what to do.”

    That David thinks of this as “customer service” is simply evidence of his intellectual bankruptcy. It’s the same kind of thinking that spawned “No Labels.”

  • Arms Merchant

    Oh, and BTW, “customer service” (i.e., goodies for votes) has pretty much bankrupted the country as well. Guess that’s two bankruptcies.

  • corwin613

    Serving the customer right now means low taxes, high services, and hate Muslims (along with certain other groups). It is not coherent, and certainly not healthy for our country.

  • mlindroo

    > Likewise, the “pro-choice” concept met public demand so long as Romney Inc.
    > was a Boston-based senatorship and governorship-seeking enterprise.
    > But now Romney Inc. is expanding to a national brand,
    > with important new growth opportunities in Iowa and South Carolina.
    > A new concept is accordingly required to serve these new markets.
    > Again: this is not flip-flopping. It is customer service.

    Is this really the sort of behavior social conservatives expect from their candidates, though?
    You are either pro-choice or pro-life, period. That’s all abortion partisans care about.

    Ambivalence would be a perfectly respectable position too (are late abortions morally acceptable to the pro-choice side, should pro-lifers oppose abortion even in the case of rape or incest etc..), but this is not what Mitt Romney is about! He enhusiastically supported the pro-choice position when it suited his political interests in Massachusetts, then abruptly reverses himself when running for president.

    Granted, other politicians have to do this from time to time too (see e.g. George H W Bush’s reversal before the 1980 elections). It’s even possible to come up with a logically coherent explanation, such as deferring to states rights or trying to find common ground. But I think social conservatives expect a bit better than that. If abortion is murder, Mitt Romney ought to oppose the practice regardless of whether he is running for office in Massachusetts or elsewhere. He was selling himself as the “full spectrum conservative” candidate in 2008 after all — the candidate who was a proud cultural warrior, foreign policy hawk and in favor of small government at home too.


  • kfromvegas

    I enjoyed this Olive Garden analogy and at the end of the day, as much as we’d like to disagree, all politicians flip-flop, it’s just a matter of how they justify it. There’s the John Kerry “I-voted-before-the-war-before-I-voted-against-it” defense or there is, as Mr. Frum suggests, the “customer service” defense, which perhaps Romney will adopt. At the end of the day, in a general election, the candidate must be able to swing moderate and independent voters, and honestly Romney seems like the only potential GOP candidate who has a chance at doing that. The irony, as many on here have pointed out, is he will ultimately be killed in the primary, but in a general election, traditional red states are going to stay red regardless of the nominee, which means the GOP only needs to swing 2 or so states, provided they hold McCain’s 08 states. Romney came out against the GM bailout, so that may hurt him in his home state of MI, but that’s still his home state, he walloped McCain in the primary there, and he supported MI’s governor-elect Rick Snyder, who recently just won a landslide. If you pair him with Rubio or Cantor and they can swing Virginia or Florida, they may have a chance.

  • TerryF98

    Romney would be the first President whose business was outsourcing jobs abroad! That should go down well in 2012 with the jobs situation likely to be little changed from right now.

  • valkayec

    I rather object to the idea of a “customer service” presidency in which the President makes decisions based on polls. The public is fickle and often not well informed. To depend upon polling data which is notoriously inefficient to determine policy decisions would be disastrous for the nation, our economy, global competitiveness, and our global standing.

    Rather the President needs a coherent vision of what the US can become and how to get there effectively and efficiently. How the Fed government can assist growth and a sustainable future while protecting the people (promoting the general welfare). As someone who’s a left leaning centrist (tending towards fiscal conservancy and socially liberal), I’d welcome a few contenders with solid, reasonable and well thought out ideas and plans about how to move this country forward so we can compete in the 21st Century with the BRIC countries as well as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Germany. The one thing Huffington is right about is that the US is gradually becoming a third world nation. This decline must stop! So, I’m looking for a few good leaders who are willing to put their political clout behind bold policies and risk the wrath of the pundit class to make the US number one again economically and educationally…and do it without gutting our social safety nets and the struggling middle income workers.

  • Carney

    I don’t think this describes Romney well. If meant to be well-meaning, it will do him more damage than help.

    Even if he were as rudderless, ruthless, and desperate to win at all costs as so many allege and claim to be able to detect, he is not stupid. He knows perfectly well that he has a reputation in this regard. And after lashing himself to the mast of conservatism in 2008, including in his CPAC swan song, he now sinks with our ship or triumphs with it. If he tries to abandon us, the backlash from ALL sides will be too much to bear.

    You can flip-flop, but not flip-flop-flip-flop.

  • Yes he will | IfoRox

    [...] How Would President Romney Govern? | FrumForum [...]

  • Blue Mussels, Moon Snails | Whimsy Speaks

    [...] Mitt Romney as the Olive Garden Candidate: [...]

  • The ‘Olive Garden’ Theory of Mitt Romney | Con Games

    [...] Olive Garden Theory of Mitt Romney  On his website, Frum Forum, David Frum responds to Ross Douthat and humorously makes the analogy of Mitt Romney as the CEO of Darden [...]