Among the surviving papers of Cicero, the Roman statesman, is a letter, possibly from his brother, advising him on how to run his campaign for consul in 64 BC. Foreign Affairs magazine republished it in a recent edition, with a glowing introduction by James Carville, the “Ragin’ Cajun” Machiavelli who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992.
The advice stood Cicero, and Clinton, in good stead. They won. Much of it is still pertinent in 2012, this in particular: “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people … you should not make specific pledges either to the Senate or the people. Stick to vague generalities. Tell the Senate you will maintain its traditional power and privileges. Let the business community and wealthy citizens know that you are for stability and peace. Assure the common people that you have always been on their side.”
That is pretty much the prescription Mitt Romney followed in reintroducing himself to the American electorate as the Republican party’s official nominee for president last Thursday. After years of pandering to the hardcore constituencies who dominate the primaries, he was now free to talk to the swing-voting independents who will decide whether he is to be the next president.
If Romney is to win, it will be on the basis of the economy President Obama inherited, then saved from worse with the help of the Federal Reserve, but proved unable, in the face of Republican intransigence and the Euro crisis, to reinvigorate. Growth remains anemic. Unemployment has been stuck over 8 per cent for 42 consecutive months. Employment is still 5 million off its pre-recession peak. Most of what new jobs there are pay relatively little.
Romney offers hope in the vague generalities of a promise to “create 12 million new jobs”, based on five-step “plan” carefully shorn of the GOP’s harder ideological edges, plus a track record of practical accomplishment managing things – businesses, a troubled winter Olympics, the state of Massachusetts.
The rough stuff will be left to his running mate, callow Ayn Randian Congressman Paul Ryan who supposedly thinks deeply on fiscal matters while daily buffing his pecs in the House of Representatives gym and who was hired as a disposable heat shield for Romney’s reentry to the middle ground.
With details to be filled in , if necessary, after November 6, the Romney plan is as exquisitely anodyne as any Cicero’s adviser could have counselled.
What American would not like to be independent of foreign energy sources by 2020? Who could be against “giv(ing) our fellow citizens the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow”. People who oppose free trade agreements even when vigorously enforced are beyond Romney’s reach under any circumstance. No one argues against curbing the budget deficit or not becoming Greece. Everyone loves small business, the proverbial engine of American job growth, and if all Romney really wants to do is to “simplify and modernise” regulations, who, in the absence of devilish details, could see the harm in that?
It is true Romney could not quite bring himself to abandon his party’s call for the repeal of President Obama’s signature healthcare reform, notwithstanding the intramural grief he has taken for pioneering Obamacare while governor of Massachusetts. What is interesting, though, is that he talked not just about repealing but “replacing” Obamacare, and for a purpose: to “rein in the skyrocketing cost of healthcare”.
For anyone not entirely in the pocket of the US medical-industrial complex, reform of the country’s byzantine, inequitable and inefficient health system has to begin with cost containment. Per capita health spending in the US is more than double the average of other OECD nations while outcomes are substantially inferior.
Medicare, the public entity which pays most of the medical bills for America’s swelling armies of elderly, is a fiscal time bomb. A lot of oxen are going to have to be gored if the bomb is not to go off. Insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, the medical profession, for-profit hospitals and medical equipment makers all need an enema, but all exercise inordinate influence thanks to the legalized bribery of American campaign finance. Obamacare is a step in right direction. Romney is leaving himself room to go further if elected.
Therein lies the case Romney is trying to make to those who voted for Obama last time but are now biddable: he is not an ideologue but a technocrat who will break the partisan deadlock get something done. Even do a Nixon-to-China on matter likes health care. The trouble is, the kind of protean candidacy recommended by Cicero’s consultant makes it difficult to be certain about who the candidate really is. He remains a Rorschach blot.