If Romney wins, he would begin his first term as a baffling figure

Walter Shapiro's Yahoo! News column examines how character collides with policymaking in Washington and in politics. Shapiro, who just finished covering his ninth presidential campaign, also is writing a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler.

By Walter Shapiro

In the frenetic closing hours of a hard-fought presidential campaign, Mitt Romney has been ballyhooing his bipartisan credentials. It’s part of his final argument to persuadable voters that he’s really Moderate Mitt rather than the “severely conservative” Massachusetts governor of the Republican primaries.

In Sanford, Fla., on Monday, Romney boasted that in Massachusetts, working with “a Democrat legislature—85 percent Democrat—I helped turn my state from deficit to surplus.” And the Republican nominee in his final major campaign speech Friday in West Allis, Wis., pledged, “When I’m elected, I will work with Republicans and Democrats in Congress. I will meet regularly with their leaders.”

All this brings to mind a delicious story from Romney’s first days as governor in 2003. At a closed-to-the-press meeting with top legislative leaders, Romney told them about his private-sector management philosophy from Bain Capital, “My usual approach has been to set out the strategic vision for the enterprise and then work with the executive vice presidents to implement that strategy.”

As Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman make clear in their biography, “The Real Romney,” the mostly Democratic legislators were not amused by Romney’s business theories of political governance. Regardless of party, few legislators in Congress or on Beacon Hill in Boston see themselves as second-tier management implementing someone else’s strategic vision.

Romney has matured as a political leader over the past decade, though he has spent more time running for president than serving in public office. And Romney did have legislative victories in Massachusetts, including (shhh!) a health care reform plan eerily similar to the President Barack Obama’s.

The lasting relevance of that Massachusetts anecdote lies in the way it highlights the painful transition from the glib certainties of the campaign trail to the unrelenting demands of actually governing. It’s why it’s still hard to see the relevance to the White House in Romney’s frequent campaign trail claim, “I promise change—and I have a record of achieving it. I built a business, and turned around another.”

If Romney were elected, he would probably have to deal with a divided Congress in which Democrats retain a narrow majority in the Senate while the Republicans are in command of the House. The legislative arithmetic for Romney would revolve around the necessity to pick up about a dozen Democratic votes to overcome any Senate filibuster.

As the 45th president, Romney might well be able to enact a significant portion of his domestic agenda during the post-inaugural honeymoon period thanks to GOP discipline and Democratic skittishness.

Obamacare would almost certainly be eviscerated or eliminated, though in an era of austerity budgeting, it’s hard to imagine what alternatives would be offered to the uninsured. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy would be made permanent—and business would be granted a permissive regulatory climate.

Far trickier would be enacting Romney’s signature proposal to slash all income tax rates by 20 percent and make up the revenue loss by closing loopholes and ending deductions. The intractable problem is that President Romney would either have to slash popular deductions like mortgage interest or concede that his numbers cannot add up as revenue neutral. Whenever Congress gets into the act on taxes, it is a safe bipartisan prediction that no voting bloc suffers and the deficit soars.

Beyond the bold strokes of his budget-slashing economic agenda, Romney would enter the Oval Office as a baffling political figure. He has reinvented himself politically so many times from his centrist days of his 1994 Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy to the fire-breathing conservatism of the Republican presidential primaries that it’s impossible for an outsider to know what’s real. In fact, Romney himself may be a bit bewildered as to where he stands.

A Romney presidency might be a portrait in schizophrenia.

On one hand, he probably would assign key roles to soft-right Republican advisers like the former Utah governor Mike Leavitt (who heads the transition team) and Beth Myers (who ran the vice-presidential search).

But whatever his personal beliefs, Romney also understands that the right-wing conservatives who dominate the Republican Party have accepted him with reservations. Whether picking Supreme Court nominees or charting his way through the thicket of social issues, President Romney would be keenly aware of the implicit threat of a primary challenge in 2016 if he deviates far from doctrinal purity.

Every new president in his confident, post-election naiveté makes serious errors. In fact, the desk chair in the Oval Office should come with a seat belt and training wheels.

The character test lies in how a new president responds to the discovery that no one, not even a veteran of Bain Capital, is prepared for the rigors of the White House. What he does with that knowledge—rather than his six-year quest for the White House—would be the true measure of the leadership style of Mitt Romney.

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