Commentary: Romney cannot make up his mind on Bill Clinton
WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney was against Bill Clinton before he was for him.
There was Romney, campaigning Tuesday in Iowa, praising the nation's last Democratic president and casting him as far superior to the current incumbent.
"Almost a generation ago, Bill Clinton announced that the era of big government was over," Romney declared. "Clinton was signaling to his own party that Democrats should no longer try to govern by proposing a new program for every problem." President Obama, he said, "tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas."
So you might assume that Romney likes Clinton. But that would be wrong. Scrambling during the GOP primaries this year to explain why he had voted in the 1992 Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary for the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, Romney invoked that old GOP standby: Clinton hatred.
"In my state of Massachusetts, you could register as an independent and go vote in (whichever) primary happens to be very interesting," Romney averred. "And any chance I got to vote against Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, I took."
Now, strictly speaking, I suppose that Romney can praise Clinton now while once having voted against him. Or he can claim that while he prefers Clinton to Obama, he preferred Tsongas to Clinton. That so much of what Romney says requires such careful parsing suggests how little he feels bound by anything he has said in the past. For Romney, every day is a blank slate. Consistency, he seems to think, is the hobgoblin of losing campaigns.
There is more here than casual flip-flopping. Romney says that he likes Clinton's view of government better than Obama's. And it's true that government's share of the economy grew under Obama because he inherited a downturn and baby boomers got older.
But what about taxes? According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, government receipts as a share of gross domestic product rose from 17.5 percent in 1992, the year Clinton was elected, to 20.6 percent in 2000, his last full year in office. By contrast, government receipts as a share of GDP were just 15.4 percent in 2011. Which numbers make Romney happier?
The top income tax rate under Clinton, for incomes over $250,000, was 39.6 percent. Obama wants to go back to the Clinton rate. Romney wants to cut the top rate from its current 35 percent to 28 percent. Who is Clinton's real heir?
And Obama would not restore all of the Clinton tax rates. He wants to raise only the top one. In principle, Obama favors lower taxes on middle-income Americans than Clinton did. By this measure, Obama is less "pro-government" than Clinton.
You can make the same case on health care. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that Obama signed in 2010 is less adventurous and less government-oriented than the health plan Clinton proposed in the early 1990s. Obama's law is based on many Republican ideas, including the individual mandate that Romney supported when he was governor of Massachusetts. Clinton, to the consternation of conservatives, was for a mandate on businesses.
It's revealing that Romney made his pro-Clinton comments on the same day that -- speaking to reporters as elevator doors were closing on him -- former President George W. Bush announced, "I'm for Mitt Romney." Funny that Romney made a bigger deal about Clinton than about that Bush endorsement. Yet Republicans, including Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan, Wis., categorically reject the lessons that Clinton taught.
When Clinton raised the top tax rate, without a single Republican vote, supply-side conservatives howled that asking a little more from the wealthy would tank the economy. It did nothing of the sort. After Clinton's tax increase, the economy roared, deficits turned into surpluses and the empathetic guy from Arkansas, despite certain well-known difficulties, earned the long-term affection of the American people. On the other hand, polls show that the second President Bush, who pursued policies Republicans are proposing more of now, is remembered less fondly. Romney would prefer to leave Bush behind the elevator doors.
For the rest of this campaign, count on Republicans to tout Clinton as more pro-business than Obama and to do all they can to separate our current president from the best parts of Clinton's legacy. Yes, many business folks who initially resented Clinton's tax increases came to appreciate the economic boom that followed. But whose approach to government, budgets and taxes more closely resembles Clinton's? Here's a hint: It's not the guy who went out of his way to vote against Clinton in 1992.
E.J. Dionne's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.