There are a lot of things that Willard Romney is not, and I don’t just mean capable of winning a presidential election. He is not woke. He is certainly not above the race-baiting he has decided to criticize in the third act of his political life. He is not especially interested in the long-term fortunes of his party (as opposed to his own). Nor is his grandstanding opposition to Donald Trump, under whom he dreamed of serving as secretary of state, especially praiseworthy. But it is this mercurial quality that makes the junior senator from Utah a reliable weather vane in American politics. If there were no constituency for what he is doing, he would not be behind it.
When running against Ted Kennedy for a Senate seat in Massachusetts, Romney was a Rockefeller Republican, bragging that unlike his opponent, who had criticized Roe v. Wade at the time it was decided and for many years afterward, he was a consistent champion of abortion. In his successful race for governor, he maintained this socially liberal posture and passed health-care legislation that in almost every particular anticipated the Affordable Care Act. Then when it was time for him to seek the Republican presidential nomination, the second time successfully, he railed against “the 47 percent,” ignored his own health-care record, and affirmed his newfound opposition to abortion. Upon joining the Senate, he voted with Trump’s legislative agenda 80 percent of the time, far more frequently than Rand Paul, for example, who was routinely considered an administration stooge. Contradictory as all of these views might appear together, they make sense taken individually as a series of coherent responses to actual political conditions on the ground.
This, I think, is the best way to make sense of Romney’s recently proposed child benefit scheme, which is earning praise from some very unlikely quarters. Under the Romney plan, a married couple earning less than $400,000 a year would receive $4,200 for every child under the age of five and $3,000 for children between the ages of six and 16 up to a maximum of $15,000 per household, divided into monthly payments. Romney’s proposal is both more generous and easier to administer than similar proposals currently being floated by the Biden White House.
What Romney is proposing is exactly the kind of pro-family populist economic policy that we are told other members of his party have been getting behind. (In practice, their break with Republican orthodoxy seems to mean complaining about Big Tech’s “cancel culture.” Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have dismissed the Romney plan on the bizarre grounds that “it is not tax relief for working families; it is welfare assistance”: duh.) It is similar to schemes that have been tried with success in a number of European countries, including ones like Hungary with right-wing governments. (How about stealing the Hungarian program that exempts women with four or more children from income tax for life?) It is just about possible to imagine an American family that would not welcome such assistance, but there cannot be enough of them to make this an electoral loser.
Romney might never have come across a strong political current in which he was unwilling to be carried along, but this is true of most effective politicians. And who is really more cynical, him or the politicians in both parties who will invent bad reasons not to support this generous and humane proposal?
Does the Romney version of a universal child benefit stand a chance? Probably not as currently outlined. The real reason most Democrats disliked the 2017 Republican tax bill was that it capped the so-called “SALT” deduction for state and local taxes. The SALT deduction was and remains a massive wealth transfer to well-to-do residents of high-tax blue states. Romney’s plan calls for its total elimination. This is about as likely as an updated version of the Defense of Marriage Act.
If nothing else, the Romney plan is a great test for the current White House. If President Biden is as committed as he claims to be to bipartisanship, he should at the very least meet with Romney to discuss the issue and consider modifying his own administration’s plan (e.g., by putting the Social Security Administration rather than the IRS in charge of distributing benefits), even if the SALT deduction and other features are retained.
It would be a very amusing thing if the dreams of would-be “common good” conservatives and progressives were brought to life by a former Bain Capital executive less than a decade removed from running ads about the dangers of giving welfare benefits to anyone.