Illustration by Kelsey Dake
Illustration by Kelsey Dake

How great a leader can you be if you go on and on about what a great leader you are?

In Tuesday’s Bloomberg-Washington Post Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney crowned himself a leader -- “a leader with the experience of leading” -- again and again, without doing much to demonstrate it, such as taking a courageous -- that is, unpopular -- stand on something. Anything.

He also said, obnoxiously, that in deciding whom to vote for, people “are not going to be looking for someone who is not successful.” For Romney, the presidency is just the last rung on a long ladder of success. Not reaching it the last time hit him hard; he had never missed a step before.

Romney clearly thinks he’s smarter than the other Republican candidates, and he may well be right. Certainly he is smarter than the only serious Republican opponent he has left, Governor Rick Perry of Texas. Perry knew that his job on Tuesday was to show that he’s not a moron, and he totally failed in this modest ambition. He didn’t even finish his homework in time. He said, about the government’s budget, “You need a president with a plan -- ” Right. A plan. And your plan, governor? “ -- which I’m laying out over the next three days.”

How lame can you get? I guess the possibility that someone might raise a question about the budget in a debate on the economy, and that Perry ought to have a few prepared thoughts, is one nobody could have predicted. (They didn’t have to be his own thoughts, for heaven’s sake.)

Planning Is Good

Perry also took the opportunity to endorse energy independence. Later, on the subject of foreign trade, he said, “What we need to be focused on in this country today is not whether or not we are going to have this policy or that policy. What we need to be focused on is how we get Americans working again.” A plan is good. A plan we need (and I’ll have it to you on Friday). But a policy? Feh. And, he added, we also need energy independence.

A softball from the moderator, Charlie Rose: What are the differences between Perry’s health-care notions and Romney’s? Perry’s answer: I have a plan for energy independence.

Perry’s great claim is to have created a million jobs in Texas, 54,600 of them through a state program that gives subsidies to promising companies. Perry noted in the debate that 75 percent of these companies are not even campaign contributors. How does Perry reconcile this with his alleged deep belief in free markets -- he claims to be a disciple of Ayn Rand -- and how does he distinguish it from similar subsidies provided by the Obama administration, which he criticizes bitterly? Why does he think such a program can even work?

Perry’s answer: First, he only opposes such subsidies from the federal government. It’s OK by him if states want to do it. But that makes no sense, does it? If it’s offensive in principle, and stupid in practice, for the federal government to take my money and give it to corporations, how can it be a good thing when states do it? Perry went on to say that “those people that have jobs today in the state of Texas, they are absolutely happy that we have got a program like that.” In other words, it works -- so forget about ideology.

Romney had a strangely similar answer to a similar question: How does his health plan as governor of Massachusetts differ from President Barack Obama’s plan, which all the Republican candidates excoriate? Experts find them nearly identical. Romney said, first, that his plan was on the state level (as if that makes a difference) and second, “We have less than 1 percent of our kids who are uninsured.” In other words, it works.

Take Your Pick

So Romney is a pragmatic moderate campaigning as a right-wing zealot, and Perry is a right-wing zealot governing in some ways as a pragmatic moderate. Take your pick. And don’t count out Perry just yet. The Republican Party has done pretty well in recent decades with presidential candidates who weren’t considered to be the brightest pebbles on the beach.

Romney will have to be careful not to appear smug. This is contrary to his training as a management consultant, where establishing that you are the smartest guy in the room is central to convincing clients that they should pay you to tell them how to run their businesses.

But Romney will adapt. Everyone agrees that his debate performance this week was not just better than four years ago, but better than four weeks ago. He’s a quick study. Little shoots of what may be real personality are starting to break through the shiny carapace.

Positively Clintonian

He risked a couple of non-prepackaged wisecracks. He had a cute exchange with a questioner about whether her question was hypothetical (which for some reason politicians feel entitles them not to answer it). And then he gave quite a good answer, neatly summarizing the financial crisis and subsequent bailout, saying he approved of some parts of the bailout and not others, and declining to promise not to bail out a bank ever again. It was positively Clintonian. None of the other Republican candidates could have done it.

The notion that something might be a mixed bag -- some good, some not so good -- shows a level of sophistication that has rarely surfaced in these Republican debates. Generally, it’s all black and white, good and evil.

The eye-opener of the evening was a video clip of Romney unloading on China. Among the long list of things he has promised to do on “day one” of his administration (kill “Obamacare,” kill the Dodd-Frank financial reform, break up those moving boxes for the recycler, etc.) is this:

“I will label China as it is, a currency manipulator. And I will go after them for stealing our intellectual property. And they will recognize that if they cheat, there is a price to pay. I certainly don’t want a trade war … but we can’t have a trade surrender either.”

Where did this come from? It’s certainly not the position of the Republican business establishment Romney comes from. It is not the position of the Tea Party/conservative/libertarian agglomeration of the Republican right that Romney has been pandering to. Threatening a trade war is not even the correct position (in my view) on the merits. In short, there seems to be nothing in it for Romney to be way out front on getting tough with China. Could this be something he really believes in?

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Michael Kinsley at mkinsley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.