Mitt Romney has an op-ed in today's USA Today, criticizing the big tax deal working its way through Congress. This puts him at odds with Tim Pawlenty and other potential Presidential prospects, who have criticized portions but said that the overall compromise is worth passing. The Senate in fact passed the bill overwhelmingly yesterday; dark-horse ultra-conservative Jim DeMint was one of only five Republicans to vote no; potential Prez challenger Jim Thune of South Dakota voted yes.
Romney has previously written two op-eds opposing ratification of the New START treaty -- placing him again outside the official Republican position, but in line with the ideologues. Even George W. Bush and Condi Rice have come out in favor of ratification.
I find a lot of similarities between the two attempts by Romney to insert himself into these issues. They are very different issue areas, obviously, but they are, broadly speaking, in the wheelhouse of the two areas Romney wants to focus on: economy and foriegn policy. In both areas, I would argue, he wants to present himself as the most aggressive, even muscular, defender of one vital interest -- American exceptionalism in the case of foreign policy, and pro-business policy in the realm of the economy.
With both New START and the tax bill, Romney is commenting on a multi-part compromise, worked out through difficult negotiations. He is commenting as those negotiated plans head to Congress for approval. Romney is not in Congress, nor is he seeking to join it, so he doesn't need to worry about actually taking the vote. This leaves him free to criticize without consequence. Both are being presented in more-or-less up-or-down fashion, because tinkering would essentially blow up the delicately-balanced compromise. This means he can suggest changes without worrying that anyone will actually try to adopt those suggestions.
In both cases, Romney approves of major aspects of the agreement, picks out aspects to disapprove of, and makes a great show of standing rhetorically athwart the treaty/bill as it stands.
But in neither case does Romney really address the 'what next' reality -- the actual consequences if Congress really were to block passage of either New START or the tax bill. In both cases -- because he is writing from the sidelines -- he is able to criticize, demand specific improvements, and stand aside.
I am reminded of Martha Coakley, declaring during the US Senate primary campaign that she would vote against the health care reform bill unless the ban on funding abortions was removed. Michael Capuano -- who actually had to cast a vote in the House -- was flabbergasted that she would blow up the entire bill at the end of such a long, difficult negotiation. But I would argue that Democratic primary votes saw her as standing firm on their side of a divide, and the exchange helped her win the primary.
Similarly, I suspect that Romney is making smart political calculations, projecting himself where he can (and in the issue areas he wants to highlight) as the conservative willing to stand firm on something -- projecting a damn-the-consequences toughness, in entirely consequence-free situations.