Republicans backpedal from conservative ideas
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- The Republicans say they want to make this election a referendum on two different views of America. They want to make it a campaign of ideas.
They just don't want to talk about their ideas.
The task of the Republican Party over the next four days and the next 10 weeks is to persuade the voters that the party really isn't a radical conservative faction intent on remaking America.
The message of the convention -- and of the campaign between now and Nov. 6 -- appears to be this: Trust us, we're moderates!
If you pay close attention to what the party has been doing and saying for the past two years, you'd think that it's itching to make the most sweeping changes in public policy since the New Deal. But that's not the message you're getting from the speeches and campaign ads.
Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney, a man famous for his lack of strong convictions, chose Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, calling the no-compromise, no-nonsense Wisconsin congressman the "intellectual leader" of the party.
It seemed that Romney had outsourced his policy ideas to Ryan. True-blue conservatives were ecstatic.
But ever since his selection, Ryan has been furiously backpedaling from his intellectual leadership, denying that the party means to kill Medicare, or to slash the safety net, or to ban abortion without any exceptions. He's even denying that Ayn Rand is his muse.
Romney has also been retreating, saying that he disagrees with parts of the Ryan budget plan that he previously endorsed. But what are those disagreements, specifically, and what are Romney's better ideas? We don't know. He won't tell us.
Apparently, we're not supposed to take seriously what Romney or Ryan said before, or what other important power bases in the Republican Party have said or done.
What about all those bills passed by the Republican House over the past two years, the votes of the most conservative House in more than a century? What about the Republican Party platform, a document that one Republican involved in its creation has boasted was "the most conservative platform in modern history"? Hey, they were just kidding!
Usually, we are well advised to take what a political party says in its platform with a grain of salt. We aren't supposed to take it literally. We understand that it's easy for party leaders to put things in a platform document that they have no intention of ever doing anything about. Platforms are easy to write; governing is hard.
It's rare that the party platform becomes the blueprint for legislation and governing. That should be especially true this year, since Romney's record as governor is more moderate than the party that wrote the platform.
But I believe that the 2012 Republican platform will be the playbook if the Republicans win the White House and take control of the Senate and retain the House.
Here's why I think so: The platform isn't just a Republican wish-list, it's stuff they've already voted for.
At the federal level, the Republicans have already voted to cut taxes on billionaires to almost nothing. They've voted to kick millions of people off food stamps, and tens of millions off of Medicaid. They've also voted to repeal Obamacare, keeping another 15 million or so from getting insurance coverage. They've voted to block all new environmental or public safety regulations until further notice.
There's another reason to take the Republicans seriously: The conservative wing of the party is fed up with being pandered to during campaign seasons, only to be ignored once the governing starts. The rise of the tea party was as much a reaction against the Republican-in-name-only leadership as it was against Barack Obama.
The tea-party landslide in 2010 not only brought a Republican House of Representatives at the federal level, it also swept in Republican governors and legislatures in many states. And those Republican leaders have been implementing a conservative agenda.
They've passed dozens of laws restricting abortion rights and women's access to health care. They've rolled back workers' rights. They've restricted the right to vote. They've refused to expand Medicaid, even if paid for by the federal government. They've enacted strict immigration laws.
It's true that, as the president, Romney could set a new, more moderate course, but there's no reason to think that he would. He has no strong ideological views that we know of. During the primaries, it was Romney who bent his views to the party's, not the other way around.
Party activists expect Romney to keep going along after he reaches the White House.
As small-government crusader Grover Norquist put it bluntly in February: "We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don't need someone to think it up or design it."
According to Norquist, the only requirement for a presidential candidate is "a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen."
In word and deed, the Republican Party is very conservative. And much of what it stands for is deeply unpopular with a majority of voters.
Which is why Romney, Ryan and the Republicans are repackaging themselves as moderates, hoping that voters won't pay any attention to how far out of the mainstream the party has strayed.