One of the major questions during the Republican presidential primaries was whether Mitt Romney intended to actually govern as a small-government conservative if he is elected president, or whether he was merely talking tough about shrinking government to appeal to a conservative GOP electorate. Unfortunately, Romney has already given limited-government advocates reason to worry.
Over the weekend, Politico reported Romney had tapped former Utah governor and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to lead his transition effort should he win the presidency. At best, Leavitt is a puzzling choice. Although most Republicans, including Romney, have warned about the dangers of President Obama's national health care law, Leavitt is a leading Republican advocate for implementing Obamacare's burdensome health insurance exchanges in all 50 states. Conveniently, his consultancy group won a contract last month to set up the new exchange in New Mexico.
This is troubling. Romney, who championed a health care law in Massachusetts that included exchanges like the ones in Obama's national law, has vowed to repeal Obamacare and replace it with market-based reforms. But how does this square with his choice of Leavitt for such an important post, from which he would lay much of the policy and personnel groundwork for a Romney presidency?
Beyond the health care issue itself, there is a cronyism issue involved. One of the biggest fears about the "CEO presidency" that Romney's election would herald is that his business background would cause him to conflate a pro-business philosophy with one that favors free markets and a limited government. As somebody who could profit personally if more states implement Obamacare exchanges, Leavitt clearly comes from the tradition of a Republican Party that is willing to expand government in the name of helping well-connected businesses.
Leavitt's embrace of big government, unfortunately, does not end with health care. As governor of Utah, Leavitt received a D in the Cato Institute's 2002 Fiscal Policy Report Card on America's Governors -- the same grade as then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean received that same year. Cato detailed how Leavitt boosted spending and became known as "Mr. Internet Tax" because he lobbied for a federal law to allow states to tax out-of-state Internet companies. "It is ironic that one of the most conservative states in the union has one of the most pro-big government governors," the report remarked.
The old adage that "personnel is policy" is an important piece of Washington wisdom. Through appointments such as this one, presidential candidates send signals about how they intend to govern if elected. Romney's choice of Leavitt, for that reason, is a huge red flag that should prompt conservatives to watch carefully what follows.