Of the stage-full of Republican hopefuls running for president this year, Mitt Romney is beginning to emerge as the only serious one in sight. It's his sober rather than angry approach to the issues that appeals. Now he's showing another mark of responsible leadership: a willingness to take unpopular stands the rest of the candidates may know are right but don't dare risk.
The other day, would you believe it, Mr. Romney came out for raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits in the future, and even slowing the growth of payments for retirees with higher incomes. Talk about touching the third rail of American politics.
It's an old rule of presidential politics: Social Security is sacrosanct, and no politician who wants to be elected will lay hands on it. Even though it has become clear that some changes need to be made if the program is to be saved for future generations. And now Mitt Romney is proposing just that.
While he was at it, Mr. Romney said he would let folks on Medicare choose to buy less expensive health insurance if they wanted to, and let them keep the savings. Or buy more expensive coverage if they were willing to pay for it. It sounds all too fair and practical to be popular, not with the opposition already playing Mediscare.
There's no use looking to Barack Obama for leadership on this issue or any other; he keeps passing the buck to Congress without risking any clear cost-cutting program of his own. He's got no time for anything as mundane as budgets. He's busy running for re-election next year on little more than the kneejerk assertion that, whatever's wrong with the country, it's the Republicans' fault. What does he need with a program? He's got a scapegoat.
And so Social Security grows less and less secure. Everybody knows Medicare is heading for fiscal trouble, too, but Mr. Romney may be the only presidential candidate of substance proposing to do something that's both decisive and acceptable about it. Like encouraging competition among insurance companies for seniors' business -- rather than continuing to ignore the whole, politically touchy issue.
What next, will he campaign against the ethanol boondoggle in a Corn Belt state like Iowa? Or point out the bloated agricultural subsidies that go to agribusiness? Even now the farm bloc in Congress is proposing an extravagant expansion of such subsidies rather than a cutback.
Mitt Romney proposes cutting the super-sized federal budget by $500 billion. Among the expenses he'd eliminate: subsidies for abortion providers like Planned Parenthood and those for Amtrak, which ought to be able to support itself if it's such a needed service. Ditto, much of the federal funding for NPR. Its specialty is nice, respectable liberal platitudes masquerading as news. It's a kind of MSNBC for the commuter class, only MSNBC isn't funded by the American taxpayer. It has that much decency. Why propagandize Americans with our own tax money? Mitt Romney's answer: We shouldn't.
Mr. Romney, former governor and CEO in the private sector, too, would also let the states administer their own Medicaid programs in hopes of reducing its cost to the taxpayers, which grows ruinous. At this rate, there may not be a special interest he hasn't offended in this campaign. It's refreshing.
His businesslike approach to even highly politicized issues bears a welcome resemblance to the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission, whose work is still being ignored by both the administration and the congressional super-committee that's supposed to come up with some real savings instead of the usual political palaver.
Not that Mr. Romney can't pander to the angriest of his party on occasion. He's come out against treating the children of illegal aliens the same as the native-born when it comes to college scholarships. Even if they were brought to this country at a young age through no choice of their own, raised as Americans, and got the same schooling as their peers.
Why punish these kids (and the rest of us) by denying them an education on equal terms? The only reason I can think of is pure meanness. There's always a lot of that going around whenever a new wave of immigration hits these shores, whether Germans in Ben Franklin's day or Mexicans in ours.
Ranting and raving about a problem is so much easier than fixing it -- in this case by overhauling the immigration system in general. For example, by opening a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrant workers now in this country. To qualify, illegals could be required to meet certain standards, like a minimal proficiency in the English language and paying a fine for having entered the country illegally. Which would be fair enough. But why fix the problem when we can just go on fighting it, especially in election years?
Talking sense to the American people was always a risky venture for any presidential candidate. In uncertain times like these, the voters may demand red meat from their politicians, and grow bored with vegetables, no matter how nutritious. They'll say it's spinach and to hell with it.
Mr. Romney wouldn't be the first politician to make his compromises with popular passions; even the best have been known to do it. Abe Lincoln, for example, took care not to publicly offend the Know-Nothings of his day, at least for a politically crucial time, even though in private he despised their bigoted politics.
But when Mitt Romney tackles a subject he knows something about through experience -- like either business or government -- he makes sense. But that could be his big problem as a candidate in these overheated times. Republican voters in the primaries may reject him as unspeakably sensible.