Is Romney a closet moderate?

Is Romney a closet moderate?

Thomas Friedman has an interesting column in today’s New York Times that raises the question of whether Mitt Romney is actually as hawkish on foreign policy as he makes himself out to be. Friedman writes:

I know Romney doesn’t believe a word he’s saying on foreign policy and that it’s all aimed at ginning up votes: there’s some China-bashing to help in the Midwest, some Arab-bashing to win over the Jews, some Russia-bashing (our "No. 1 geopolitical foe") to bring in the Polish vote, plus a dash of testosterone to keep the neocons off his back.

Some neocons are, indeed, worried that Mitt is only pretending to be a hawk to keep the party onside. Jennifer Rubin, the court scribe of the Romney campaign, channels some of that anxiety in a recent blog post. "[A]mong Republicans," she writes, riffing off of some of the candidate’s recent speeches, "it is a segment of foreign policy hawks who are most aggrieved and feel overlooked by the campaign."

Rubin elaborates:

From the perspective of some hawks, Mitt Romney needs to state controversial, bold foreign policy positions as sort of a test of his seriousness. If he doesn’t say now he’ll finish the job in Afghanistan and he’ll, if need be, set up a no-fly zone in Syria, he’ll shrink from tough positions when in office. They don’t think it is enough to have surrogates like former senator Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, and senior adviser Richard Williamson give assurances, speak about Romney’s devotion to American exceptionalism and remind conservatives of Romney’s early support for the Syrian rebels.

I’ve heard similar whispers to this effect, and Bill Kristol likely spoke for many on the right when he dinged Romney for failing to even mention the war in Afghanistan during his convention speech, a bizarre unforced error when a perfunctory shoutout to the troops would have been fine.

Doubtless, the various foreign-policy wings of the GOP would battle it out for influence in a Romney administration, and the candidate has done a reasonably good job of staying vague enough that he won’t limit his options once in office. But, like Jacob Heilbrunn, I think the realists would win most battles, and here’s why.

Josh Barro, a Bloomberg writer and former Manhattan Institute fellow, has been promoting his theory that Romney has a "Secret Economic Plan." In a nutshell, the idea is that Romney can’t possibly believe his own rhetoric about immediately imposing severe budget cuts. "To increase his chances of getting elected, he will have to implement policies that are likely to grow the economy," says Barro, and that in part means running up Keynesian deficits. Romney has already indicated that he wants to grow the defense budget, and has railed against defense cuts that he says would kill jobs (Keynesian!). He’s also favorably cited a recent Congressional Budget Office report warning that the so-called fiscal cliff would provoke a sharp recession (Keynesian!). It seems pretty clear he doesn’t believe in European-style austerity, even though he talks a lot about Obama’s deficits and so forth. And the likely Republican-controlled Congress, newly de-radicalized by Obama’s departure, would probably go along with heavy deficit spending, just as it did under George W. Bush.

What about foreign policy? Here’s where the overseas component of the Secret Economic Plan comes in. Romney isn’t going to be interested in getting involved in any foreign entanglements that threaten the Plan. His China comments are nonsense that he obviously has no intention of implementing. He’s already said he’s fine with Obama’s timeline for winding down the war in Afghanistan — and that means cooperating with No. 1 Geopolitical Foe Russia on the logistically complicated exit. He walked back an aide’s comments suggesting he’d green-light an Israeli attack on Iran. He hasn’t said much if anything about Pakistan, or about ramping up what remains of the war on terror generally. Even his hawkish advisor John Bolton, in a recent Washington Times op-ed, openly worried that Romney might not pull the trigger himself and bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. His foreign-policy team has bent over backwards to stress that the former governor is not planning to intervene directly in Syria. And his appointment of Robert Zoellick as the head of his national security transition team suggests at a minimum that top realists will play a prominent role in his administration.

It’s not a slam-dunk case, I admit. As the New York Times‘ Peter Baker noted in a smart take on Romney’s foreign policy last week, "The challenge is figuring out when the speeches are just words intended to highlight or even invent differences for political purposes and when they genuinely signal a change in America’s relationship with the world." But if Romney is serious about earning himself a second term, logic suggests he’ll tone it down if and when he gets behind the Resolute Desk.

Correction: Josh Barro informs me he’s a *former* Manhattan Institute fellow. Apologies for the mistake.