One of the most noteworthy moments of the second presidential debate came when Mitt Romney was asked how he was different from George W. Bush. It was an important question, because there is a slice of the electorate that may not love President Obama, but who don’t want to return to the Bush era either. Romney gave an answer based around his five-point economic plan that got mixed reviews. As a commentator, however, I have more leeway to answer that question than Romney does as a presidential candidate, and I can think of a number of ways Romney is different from Bush.
To start with, Romney is significantly more intelligent and articulate than Bush, has a much better grasp of policy, is harder working and is a far more competent manager. He’s much more likely to make decisions after delving into data and undertaking deep analysis. In contrast, Bush was more comfortable in his own skin, more charming and more likeable. He was much more likely to make decisions based on gut feeling and emotion.
Ideologically, Bush was socially conservative and believed that government had a role to play in helping people’s lives – he was a big government Republican, or “compassionate conservative.” In contrast, Romney doesn’t have an ideology. With a background as a management consultant, he’s willing to adapt his positions to his environment. His pursuit of universal health care in Massachusetts seemed like the natural extension of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” Yet he ran as “severely conservative” in the primaries and has started to drift back toward a murky center during the debates.
So what does this mean in practice?
Bush adopted a number of policies to expand the size and scope of government, from the Medicare prescription drug law to No Child Left Behind and bought off conservatives with tax cuts and health savings accounts. Romney’s approach to tax and spending policy will largely be based on the composition of the Senate. The limited government contingent in the Senate is much stronger now than it was when Bush was in power. When Bush took office in 2001, there was no Jim DeMint in the Senate, let alone the likes of Sens. Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Lee or Ron Johnson. This year’s elections could see more limited government Senators. So, he could operate in an environment that would push him to pursue tax reform and entitlement reform and real spending cuts. On the other hand, if Democrats retake the Senate, perhaps he’d be willing to cut a deal that raised taxes in exchange for promised spending restraint, as Bush’s father did. I also think that under a Romney administration, we’d be much less likely to see the sort of mismanagement we saw by Bush during Katrina.
On foreign policy, despite his rhetoric and some of his advisors, Romney is likely to pursue a more restrained approach than Bush because he’s more risk averse. I don’t believe, for instance, that if Romney were president in 2003, that he would have invaded Iraq.