So begins a joke in yesterday’s Financial Times; it ends with the barman looking up and saying ‘Hi Mitt.’ The candidate who is now all but guaranteed to challenge President Obama in this year’s election is well characterised by this feed line. Certainly the FT seem vindicated in its interpretation that Romney is a candidate unable to make up his mind; Romney has consistently backtracked and bungled his way through the Republican primaries, leaving a heap of ammunition for Obama’s campaign to cut into hard hitting adverts indicating his indecisiveness.
This is partly true, but in essence Romney’s dithering is reflective of a wider trend in American conservatism that has been evolving since before Reagan. The growing dominance of neo-Conservatism within the Republican Party and their support base is having a telling effect on Romney, who is instinctively a moderate. In effect Romney is being forced to adopt more Rightist policies than he would like since neo-Conservatism has triumphed in taking over the American right: As a result, social issues have been pushed to the fore in the primaries, and Romney has had to adopt a belligerent and aggressive foreign policy outlook based on American exceptionalism and the aim to bring American values to the world.
As the FT has highlighted, it is with foreign policy that he is most easily able to assert that he was a true conservative, since as Governor of Massachusetts he had no foreign policy and so has had no precedent to diminish his claims. This neo-Conservative influence has been guaranteed by his foreign affairs team, which contains less realists and less diversity than under George W. Bush.
However Romney is not a natural neo-Conservative, and his domestic record highlights this. Whilst labelling Obama’s healthcare plan (‘Obamacare’) as ‘socialist’, he pre-empted Obama’s plan by introducing something similar in Massachusetts. His domestic record also indicates his willingness to debate tax rises, and on the moral front, his Mormon faith does not sit well with many Christian voters.
Essentially, Romney is being pushed right by voters who are reacting to the black, ‘socialist’ Obama. However the propagation of moral issues and the right shift of the Republican Party, who on the face of it are just reacting to this public move, has been an agenda pushed by neo-Conservatives for over two decades.
The two American parties are further apart now than they have ever been but it has been the Republicans who have most vehemently pushed ideology over pragmatism. The use of brinkmanship tactics that ultimately resulted in the downgrading of America’s credit rating is one fiscal example. Perhaps more dangerously it has been the triumph of the radical-Right agenda in the social and foreign sphere that is forcing Romney to make promises he is not keen to keep, but may have to if he is elected.