March 3, 2006
If Policy Agendas Count in 2008 Race, Romney's a Winner
By Mort Kondracke

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has one very impressive thing going for him as a 2008 presidential prospect: the right policy priorities for the country.

He would fight Islamic jihadists by helping Muslims modernize, tackle the country's long-term fiscal crisis by reforming entitlements and health care, address the economic challenge from Asia by improving education and investing in technology - and try to work with Democrats instead of fighting with them all the time.

To test whether he'll sell as a GOP presidential product, he's molded his image to please the party's right-wing base. He defines himself as a conservative, says "my thinking has evolved" on abortion (from neutral to "pro-life") and supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

And yet on the stump - as evidenced by a recent appearance in South Carolina - he avoids right-wing demagoguery, advocating immigration reforms to allow foreign Ph.D.s and other highly-skilled workers to swiftly become U.S. citizens.

To the dismay of Massachusetts' scientific community, he's come out against therapeutic cloning of human embryos for medical research, but he's to the left of President Bush on the issue, favoring the use of leftover embryos at in vitro fertilization clinics for stem-cell research.Moreover, values and "culture" issues - the red meat that candidates usually toss to their base - come fourth in Romney's list of challenges facing the country, behind terrorism, the fiscal crisis and competition from China and India.

And as a Republican governor who managed to cut spending in a state with an 85 percent Democratic Legislature, Romney just might be able to tame what he calls Washington, D.C.'s "gotcha politics" by sharing credit with Democrats.

Heading into the 2008 presidential campaign, I'm especially interested in what prospective candidates think about the big issues facing America, and I'm hoping to explore that with them regularly in upcoming columns.

After interviewing Romney at the National Governors Association winter meeting, and finding him rather didactic in delivery, I discovered that he lays out his priority list regularly on the stump. If the priorities are right - and Romney's definitely are - then that's a good sign. And the ideas he's putting forward are challenging. They include what amounts to an individual mandate for people to have basic health insurance, with subsidies for low-income people, or else pay all their medical expenses out of their own pockets.

In Massachusetts, he discovered, it would cost $600 million a year to require "free riders" to be insured and to offer a basic high-deductible policy to the poor. But the state would save money because it costs $1 billion to provide free care to the uninsured.

He would not eliminate Medicaid, rather reforming it to become an insurance policy involving premiums, co-pays and deductibles for those able to pay. And, he'd reform Medicare and Social Security by shaving promised benefits for younger workers, though he hasn't yet worked out the specifics.

Following the failure of Bush's Social Security reforms last year, he said, "the BRAC approach may make more sense," referring to the process for closing military bases through a commission whose recommendations must be voted up or down in their entirety by Congress.

Beyond the difficulty of getting Congress to delegate entitlement policy to a commission, another flaw in Romney's agenda is his reluctance to make tax increases part of his solution to the long-term fiscal crisis.

He told me, "I don't like taxes. I think we need less government, not more government." He closed a $3 billion budget deficit in Massachusetts without raising taxes, he said.

And yet, he told me, "when I ran for governor in Massachusetts, I was asked, would I sign a no-new-taxes pledge? I said I won't sign such a pledge, but you know I hate taxes." As a presidential contender, he said, "I'm not going to say what [former President] George H.W. Bush said." That's a good sign. We'll see if he can keep to it.

To compete with China and India - "hardworking, educated, creative, innovative, family-oriented, mercantile" cultures - Romney proposes upgrading math and science education and paying top teachers as much as $15,000 extra a year.

"There's only one strong opposition group, and that's the teachers unions," he told me. "At some point, I think America - and, importantly, the minority communities - are going to say, 'it's time to split with our friends, the unions and the Democratic Party, and put our kids first here.' Unequal educational opportunity is the civil rights issue of our time."

Romney vetoed a union-backed bill to block new charter schools from being established in Massachusetts and had it sustained partly with support from black legislators. "It was a good sign," he said.

On foreign policy, Romney said he's "not a member of any school" - neo-conservative or realist - but he believes that combating Islamic jihadists will be the top priority for the next president and will require "a major, long-term effort to support the institutions of modernity in the world of Islam."

"Of course, in places where military conflict erupts, we have to win," he said, but he added that "the bar for putting American lives at risk is a very high bar." He supported the Iraq war based on the belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

"A lot of miscalculations and mistakes were made," he said, but he stopped short of declaring, one way or the other, whether knowing what he knows now would have changed his stance on whether to take the fight to Iraq. Romney is handsome and articulate. He gained national attention for saving the 2002 Winter Olympics from collapse. He's not exactly mesmerizing on the stump, but he should be able to learn. He's definitely tilting rightward to run for the GOP nomination, but he doesn't seem to be selling his soul - yet. To his credit, a brochure that touted his accomplishments in Massachusetts also had pictures of two Democratic legislative leaders on its cover. That attitude and a sound agenda constitute a good start toward the presidency.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

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