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Can Romney Really Lead?

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It was one thing for Mitt Romney to pander to the GOP base while running in the primaries, as he took on a succession of would-be pretenders to the title of Great Red Hope. But now Romney is the presumptive nominee of his party--which makes him its leader, nominally--and yet he still seems to be jumping eagerly for the approval of his base, asking only for policy guidance along the lines of: "How high?" All of which raises an important question: If Romney is elected, who will really be running the country? Him, or Mitch McConnell or John Boehner?

And that's putting the matter conservatively--if you'll pardon the expression--since we know that McConnell and Boehner mainly serve as sock puppets for the GOP's tea-party-captured, Grover Norquist-terrorized base.

Consider: Eric Fehrnstrom is one of Romney's longest-serving and most loyal aides, as well as a physical and intellectual link to the candidate's Massachusetts governorship. By all accounts, he's very smart, and he knows all the talking points about the supposed differences between Obamacare and Romneycare. So when Fehrnstrom said flatly, as he did on MSNBC on Monday, that it was "correct" to say that Romney doesn't believe the individual mandate penalty is a "tax," we were obliged to conclude he was speaking for the candidate.

Hence, we are also obliged to conclude that Romney shifted his position when, a few days later, he told CBS that because the Supreme Court majority decision  had concluded the penalty was a tax, he himself had to call it a tax too. "They have spoken," he said. "Therefore it is a tax." Even though Romney disagreed with the majority on just about everything else.

Just as strikingly, in the same interview Romney rhetorically embraced the campaign line McConnell, Boehner and other Republicans had laid out on the Sunday talk shows, accusing Obama of, in effect, imposing a middle-class tax increase with Obamacare.

Here is Romney: "He said he wouldn't raise taxes on middle-income Americans, and not only did he raise the $500 billion that was already in the bill, it's now clear that his mandate, as described by the Supreme Court, is a tax," Romney said. 

This almost precisely tracked what McConnell said on Fox News Sunday: "The Supreme Court, which has the final, says it is a tax. The tax is going to be levied 77 percent on Americans making less thaan $120,000 a year, so it's a middle class tax ...  increase."

 In an article in late January, I asked whether a President Romney would end up "leading from behind," to invoke a favorite GOP talking point against Barack Obama:

"Can he be like Ronald Reagan, who kept his party marching behind him despite perceptions, by his second term, of having made serious compromises? Or will he end up more like a George H.W. Bush, who fatally offended the conservative electorate (which always mistrusted him) by raising taxes and triggering a third-party rebellion that cost him reelection?"

The answer to this question may be getting clearer.  It's hard to see how this candidate can come to lead his party when he remains in such an eager state of followership. Even in the best case, a Romney presidency would likely end up being divided against itself, with the new president's pragmatic impulses constantly at war with the base's ideological demands.  Just so we're all forewarned.          

Michael Hirsh

Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal. He also contributes to 2012 Decoded. Hirsh previously served as the senior editor and national economics correspondent for Newsweek, based in its Washington bureau. He was also Newsweek’s Washington web editor and authored a weekly column for Newsweek.com, “The World from Washington.” Earlier on, he was Newsweek’s foreign editor, guiding its award-winning coverage of the September 11 attacks and the war on terror. He has done on-the-ground reporting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places around the world, and served as the Tokyo-based Asia Bureau Chief for Institutional Investor from 1992 to 1994. Hirsh has appeared many times as a commentator on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and National Public Radio. He has written for the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Harper’s, and Washington Monthly, and authored two books, Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future over to Wall Street and At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World. Hirsh has received numerous awards, including the Overseas Press Club award for best magazine reporting from abroad in 2001 and for Newsweek’s coverage of the war on terror, which also won a National Magazine Award.

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