A week from today, Mitt Romney will speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He won’t be the only potential 2012 candidate at the conference, but it is clear that he hopes to distinguish himself. If he does not announce his 2012 campaign in the speech–at CPAC in 2008 he officially left his quest for the presidency–I expect there will be no doubt of his intention when he is done.
There is also little doubt about the Romney strategy: He will take a back seat to nobody in his muscular criticism of Obama–for “apologizing” for America internationally and undermining free-enterprise domestically. At the same time, Romney will struggle to project his own self-image, as the most adult adult in the Republican field, competent and reasoned. As a result, there is significant calculation behind Romney’s most explosive rhetoric. He is often cautious without sounding cautious, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to understand just what he is saying. Back in December, he wrote an op-ed in USA Today, criticizing the tax cut compromise President Obama struck with Republicans. Romney wrote of the tax deal:
It will also add to the deficit. In many cases, lowering taxes can actually increase government revenues. If new businesses, new investments and new hiring are spurred by the prospects of better after-tax returns, the taxes paid by these new or growing businesses and employees can more than make up for the lower rates of taxation. But once again, because the tax deal is temporary, a large portion of this beneficent effect is missing. What some are calling a grand compromise is not grand at all, except in its price tag. The total package will cost nearly $1 trillion, resulting in substantial new borrowing at a time when we are already drowning in red ink.
After he wrote this, many observers, both liberals and conservatives, thought Romney was arguing that a permanent income tax cut would have led to higher tax revenues over the long term than a temporary tax cut–effectively reprising the discredited Republican theory of the 1980s that income tax cuts cause a net increase in tax collection. His advisers later confirmed to me that this was not Romney’s argument. In fact, Romney was arguing a much narrower point–that the uncertainty caused by a temporary extension creates more uncertainty for business and reduces the “beneficent effect,” not the net deficit impact. But its hard to tell. Read that paragraph again five times. It is all written in plain language. It all seems critical. First he presents a theory. Then a criticism. Then he complains about the price tag. He does not directly connect the three.
I raise all this because I have been struck by Romney’s reaction to the impasse in Egypt. For months, Romney has been attacking President Obama for his foreign policy, saying the president has failed to embrace American exceptionalism, and that he has repeatedly apologized for American greatness. But when faced with the crises in Egypt, Romney chose to take a pass in going after Obama. In fact, based on his appearance on CNN Tuesday, the Romney line on Egypt is difficult to distinguish from the Obama line.
There’s always been a bit of a potential conflict and a balance between two of our interests in foreign policy; one being that we support values and principles they are consistent with our own. At the same time, we have an interest in our national security. . . . But we’re not going to go around the world and change every government to fashion it to equal our own.
Before a conservative audience, however, on the cusp of a presidential campaign, I wonder how Romney will handle his effective agreement with Obama’s handling on Egypt. I doubt he will simply let the situation there pass without comment. I expect, rather, that he will construct a statement that sounds like a strong disagreement with Obama, without being very much of one at all.