You Say Tomato, I Say Potato

Yesterday, The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis arrived at the conclusion that Mitt Romney's famous flip-flopping and President Obama's pragmatism were one in the same:

A politician who considers himself driven more by case-by-case pragmatism than any overarching philosophy, who likes to get all the smartest people in the room to hash out an issue, probing each side with questions and counters to arrive at some kind of workable middle ground. Does that sound familiar?

I understand the temptation to make this argument, but it's off base. Obama’s pragmatism defines him. Every decision he’s made during his first term, from passing the stimulus to the intervention in Libya, evinces his belief that realism, data, and debate—not ideology—make for effective long-term policy. This pragmatism was present during the 2008 election, but Obama’s hopey-changey persona made his pragmatism easy to overlook and easier to decry later when he didn’t give his supporters all the legislative victories they wanted. It’s not a pragmatism engineered to win him votes; his impulse to seek compromise often loses him support among his base (as with the public option) and fails to appease the opposition.

Romney’s pragmatism, on the other hand, is what makes him so difficult to define. His "pragmatism"—if you can call it that—is intended to get more votes, even if bad policy is the price. That's why his positions on abortion, health care, and climate change have radically changed over the course of a few election cycles. Having been governor of Massachusetts, Romney is no stranger to the realistic choices that come with governing, and many of his decisions were pragmatic and smart. But Governor Romney is long gone. The Romney running for president in 2012, the candidate supporting policies he thought ludicrous less than a decade ago, is doing so because he believes that is the best way to get to the White House. If Romney shared Obama’s political philosophy, he wouldn't be cruising toward a presidential nomination right now.

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