CPAC: Romney Tries to Be Not-Romney

Mitt Romney’s speech to CPAC today was largely a re-hash of his basically competent stump speech, with a few chunks of red meat awkwardly thrown in. There wasn’t much that was memorable, but there was this line–astounding in its sheer counterfactual chutzpah:

I was a conservative governor.  I fought against long odds in a deep blue state.  I understand the battles that we, as conservatives, must fight because I have been on the front lines. (Update: In the speech as delivered, Romney described himself as having been “severely conservative.”)

Few conservatives will buy that. Mitt Romney governed as a Republican who could reach across party lines, not as a conservative willing to sacrifice his position for his values. Hence RomneyCare, which adorns the desk (at right) in the Romney portrait in the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Romney cites his stances on social issues as evidence of his conservatism in office, but the fact is that the most important social change of his era–a court decision legalizing gay marriage in the state–was largely out of his hands. I suspect that Romney’s glib reference to his opposition to that decision–“we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage”–will offend liberals without reassuring conservatives.

Romney could have owned up to the fact that he has departed considerably from conservative policy over the years, while stressing the key conservative principles upon which he has not yielded. But Romney went too far, claiming to be an across-the-board conservative, trying to be the “not-Romney” for whom many conservative voters still pine, rather than himself.

Santorum’s speech earlier in the program was, as Mike Flynn observed, disappointing, but when the former Pennsylvania senator talks about defending the idea that rights come from God and not the state, the audience senses that he is speaking from his deepest convictions.

Romney’s convictions are not conservative in a political sense. Romney did make one refreshingly honest admission today: “There are college students at this conference who are reading Burke and Hayek. When I was your age, you could have told me they were infielders for the Detroit Tigers.” Romney has failed to demonstrate, however, that Burke and Hayek are relevant in any way to what he has done thus far in his political career. Whenever he talks about the origins of his political views, as he did today, he mentions his father and his family.

Perhaps, then, Robert Filmer–author of Patriarcha, the seventeenth-century argument in favor of monarchy–is closer to Romney’s philosophical foundation.

That’s conservatism with a capital “C”–the idea that he is best fit to rule who has inherited the right. It’s not what most Americans would recognize today as conservatism, but it is what conservatism might have meant to the Founders, some of whom may have drawn inspiration for their revolution against the British Parliament from monarchist, rather than republican, principles.

Instead of trying to be “not-Romney,” the erstwhile Republican frontrunner should trumpet his true convictions–not as personal anecdote, but as political philosophy. He seems to believe he should govern because he has the right–so he should say so. He would be the regal president Alexander Hamilton always wanted, tightly restrained by the Constitution that Madison designed for the purpose.

What could be more conservative, and more American, than that?