Mitt Romney — the interview

I had the honor of interviewing Governor Romney today for about 15 minutes. Given his schedule, and the disruption in his travel plans resulting from bad weather, I was extremely grateful that the Governor was able to fit Power Line in.
Talking with Romney in a “one-on-one” setting left me with the same positive impression I have had since first encountering him. My questions were intended to be reasonably challenging, at least to the extent of not always being answerable through canned recitations. Romney answered every question with poise and assurance, remaining focused yet genial throughout.
I started out by asking the Governor about Iraq. My first question played off of his statement in an interview with Hugh Hewitt that we’ll know within a few months whether our attempt to secure Baghdad’s civilian population with additional troops (which Romney supports) has a reasonable prospect for success. I asked what his criteria for making this assessment will be. Romney responded that the President Bush and Secretary of Defense Gates have established benchmarks with which to measure our success, and laid them out for the Iraqi government. He mentioned specifically the number of non-corrupt Iraqi police and their performance, the willingness of Shia and Sunni elements to cooperate, and the level of incidents of “vandalism and destruction.” Romney rejected the number of car bombs as a valid benchmark, preferring to focus on more fundamental indicators.
I asked the Governor whether his reference to Defense Department benchmarks meant that he would defer to the government’s assessment of our success, as opposed to forming an independent judgment. Romney responded that without access to classified information it would be difficult to make an independent assessment, but that it should be clear reasonably soon “to all of us” whether or not the surge is succeeding.
Romney mentioned that he had talked recently with Melvin Laird about our experiences prior to exiting Vietnam, and the benchmarking we did at that time. He noted that those benchmarks were mostly met, even though Congress decided to pull the plug. Talking to Laird seems like a very “Romney” thing to do, given his thirst for data and other relevant information. I consider it a plus that Romney apparently sought Laird out, even though (or maybe in part because) Laird has been a critic of our efforts in Iraq.
My follow-up question was whether Romney had in mind a “Plan B” for Iraq in the event that the surge does not succeed, or whether at that point it would simply be time to begin a pull-out. Romney expressed an understandable reluctance to discuss a “failure” scenario, but he expressed no inclination to pull out, and noted with apparent approval that Secretary Gates has looked at alternative strategies. I understood Romney to say that he would consider other alternatives to preventing the government from collapsing, but that he did not favor a partition of Iraq. He provided what I thought was a strong analysis of why partition would be a mistake.
Next, we discussed health insurance. My question here was whether he considers the approach he used in Massachusetts — basically requiring all citizens to have health insurance — to be a viable and desirable approach for the nation as a whole. He answered that the Massachusetts plan was to some extent the product of special circumstances in the state: (1) a low numbere of uninsured and (2) the availability of over a billion dollars from various sources for use in taking care of the uninsured that could be converted to helping them obtain insurance. Romney’s view is that each state, as a laboratory for our democracy, should find its own solution, but that the “overarching” market-based approach used in Massachusetts is the best way to go. Romney said he would not have the federal government mandate that everyone obtain health insurance, and he denounced the European model as well as “Hillarycare.”
Turning to the political landscape, I asked the Governor whether he was concerned that his good government, data hungry “empiricist” campaign theme might not generate the enthusiasm needed to catch up with his top two rivals, both of whom have higher name recognition and are well ahead of him in the polls. Romney made it clear that he sees as his challenge right now to do well in three states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — not to overhaul Giuliani and McCain in national popularity polls, which he considers “misleading.” He said that in Iowa, about 120,000 people will decide the outcome, and he noted with a laugh that he’s meeting with them on a regular basis. Romney also expects to do well in New Hampshire given his low-tax, small government principles. He sees social issues playing a key role in South Carolina, and acknowledged with a chuckle that he has challenges in this regard. However, he quickly pointed out that his rivals do as well.
Romney’s reference to conservative principles and the challenge of winning the votes of social conservatives led me to ask about the problems he might face in the general election if he wins the nomination as the conservative alternative to Giuliani and McCain. Romney rejected my premise that the country is moving towards the center, if not the left. He sees the 2006 results as a reflection of unhappiness with poor management of the war in Iraq, coupled with “no weapons of mass destruction.” He does not think this means voters want higher taxes or more government intrusion in their lives. Thus, he concludes, the answer for 2008 lies in the assertion of conservative principles by an “outsider” not associated with the “rancor and bitterness” that has characterized recent political discussion.
I took the “conservative principles” reference as an expression of why Republicans should prefer Romney to Giuliani, and the “non-rancorous outsider” part as a reason why we should prefer him to McCain.
The Governor had to end the call there. Again, I am most appreciative that he gave Power Line a decent chunk of his valuable time.
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