Another front-page story you can skip

Today's New York Times has a front-page article headlined "Romney Seen Pulled 2 Ways Over Economy." Most readers are already familiar with one of those two ways, the one Paul Ryan represents: small government, less regulation, and above all lower taxes, especially for the rich. It's the other way that is supposed to make this story front-page stuff. Before he had to satisfy the demands of the hardline conservatives who now dominate the GOP, Mitt Romney "propounded the benefits of expanding and enforcing regulations, including minimum wage and environmental laws. He has argued that government spending, including public investments in private companies, can stimulate the economy and create jobs. And he has advocated tax penalties to shape public behavior, as in his successful campaign to penalize Massachusetts residents who do not obtain health insurance."

In other words, Romney once supported a lot of things he now opposes. Most Times readers probably knew that already. But the Times's Binyamin Appelbaum would have us believe that Romney's moderate tendencies are dormant, not extinct. To support this suggestion (it's not quite an argument), Appelbaum claims that "some people who have known [Romney] in both of his careers say that he still sees government through the pragmatic eyes of a businessman" (emphasis mine). In the next paragraph Appelbaum quotes one of these people, Thomas G. Stemberg, who's been close to Romney since the 1980s. "I think his basic philosophy is, whether you're running a for-profit business, a nonprofit or a government agency, at the end of the day one should evaluate how one is doing, and continually evaluate success, and the right criteria is the level of customer satisfaction." How that bit of business-school palaver is supposed to amount to a governing philosophy I'm not sure. It's certainly a slender reed on which to rest the claim that part of Romney is still a pragmatic moderate. But, hey, there's always more than one way to read a quote, and maybe Stemberg really was trying to say what Appelbaum thinks he was saying.

More troubling is the preceding paragraph, where Appelbaum concedes that, in order to "court" Republican voters, "in recent years [Romney] has modified and abandoned some" of the positions he took as governor of Massachusetts. "But," adds Appelbaum, "the minimum wage is an example of an issue on which he has held constant." There are two problems with this sentence. The first is that it strongly suggests there are other examples of an economic issue on which Romney has remained less conservative than his party. If there are, Appelbaum does not mention them. The second problem is that Appelbaum himself goes on to explain that Romney has not really held constant to his original position on the minimum wage. He used to think it should be indexed for inflation, an idea abhorrent to most free-market conservatives. "But under fire from conservatives," writes Appelbaum, "he modified his position, saying that automatic increases in the minimum wage should be suspended in some circumstances, like periods of high unemployment" -- like the one we're in now, for example.

So, on the basis of one vague quote and a policy position that has been qualified into irrelevance, Appelbaum wants us to believe that Romney is "pulled two ways over the economy." Sure, part of Romney agrees with what he's been saying during his entire campaign, but another part still believes in the very different policies he once endorsed as governor, the ones you would expect a savvy businessman to favor (because, evidently, businessmen are never ideologues). This strikes me as an example of a reporter obscuring the obvious truth by focusing on the orphaned record of a politician who has publicly renounced nearly everything he once supported. Just one of many examples -- take my word for it.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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