Who's the Boss?

05/23/2012 05:12 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Will Mitt Romney or the Republicans in Congress define the Republican message this year? That's a big problem for the Romney campaign. It's beginning to look like congressional Republicans want to put Romney in office so he can sign off on the Tea Party agenda -- their agenda, not his.

"We're not a cheerleading squad," a freshman House Republican told the New York Times. "We're the conductor. We're supposed to drive the train."

No, they're not. The party's presidential candidate is supposed to drive the train. He's the leader. Congressional Republicans are supposed to be the followers. And, yes, the cheerleading squad. If Romney can't establish preeminence over his own party, how can he lead the country? Or the world?

Romney has already endorsed Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial budget plan, which calls for radical spending cuts, as his economic agenda. House Republican leaders have no plans to take up Romney's proposal to impose tough sanctions on China for currency manipulation. They think it's a threat to the principle of free trade. Now Speaker John Boehner has called for another showdown over raising the nation's debt limit, saying, "We shouldn't dread the debt limit. We should welcome it."

In Boehner's view, another debt crisis like the one we had last summer would be an "action-forcing event" to blackmail the president -- any president -- into signing off on bigger spending cuts. Shouldn't Mr. Romney have something to say about that?

In September 1999, frontrunner George W. Bush established his preeminence over his party when he denounced House Republican efforts to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." It showcased Bush's determination to run on his agenda, not theirs. "We're not coordinating with the House on issues," Bush's campaign spokeswoman said.

Compare that with John McCain in September 2008, when the financial crisis broke. McCain suspended his presidential campaign and rushed back to Washington to participate in Wall Street bailout negotiations, even though he had no formal role in the process. McCain even asked for a postponement of the first debate because of the "historic crisis in our financial system."

It didn't work. The House defeated the $700 bailout package on September 29. House Republicans voted better than two to one against it -- defying both their nominee and their president. One GOP Representative said the bailout would put the nation "on the slippery slope to socialism." The stock market immediately plunged five percent.

The vote was an embarrassing setback for McCain. It exposed his limited influence within his own party. He appeared rattled by the crisis, whereas Barack Obama kept his cool, saying, "It's part of the President's job to deal with more than one thing at once."

Consider President Clinton's signature legislative achievements: free trade, welfare reform and a balanced budget. He achieved all of them by defying his own party. Congressional Republicans provided the votes to pass NAFTA and welfare reform. President Clinton made a balanced budget deal with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, bypassing Democratic congressional leaders.

President Obama has defied congressional Democrats on more than one occasion. In the budget negotiations last summer, he was willing to consider reforms in entitlement spending that horrified Democrats. He ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan even while setting a date for withdrawal. The Guantanamo Bay detention facility is still open. Obama signed an extension of the Bush tax cuts.

When George W. Bush first ran for President in 2000, voters thought he would be like his father -- conservative, but not radical. Bush advertised himself as a "compassionate conservative." His campaign highlighted his ability to work with Democrats in Texas (without bothering to note that Texas Democrats are a far cry from Nancy Pelosi). Most important, Bush was not one of Gingrich's congressional shock troops that shut down the federal government and impeached President Clinton. As president, however, Bush turned out to be more right wing than voters expected on most issues (Iraq, abortion and economic policy, though not on immigration reform or Medicare prescription drug coverage). Bush was the original "Etch-a-Sketch" candidate.

A lot of Democrats are wondering which Romney would be President -- the moderate governor of Massachusetts or the right-wing primary candidate who opposes immigration reform, criticizes the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and seems eager to re-fight the Cold War. Conservatives worry that he is a businessman eager to make deals and sell them out. Moderates worry that he is in thrall to the right and shows no inclination to stand up to them when the pressure is on -- like when he failed to condemn Rush Limbaugh's outrageous remarks about a Georgetown law student ("It's not the language I would have used").

If Romney is elected in November, the test could come quickly. Does Romney agree with Speaker Boehner that "allowing America to default" would be less irresponsible than raising the debt ceiling without huge spending cuts? Would he put the nation's full faith and credit at risk in order to achieve an ideological objective? Would Romney allow tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans to expire if that meant ending tax cuts for the rich?

When he spoke at the Reagan Library this week, Rep. Ryan defined the election as a referendum on the congressional Republican agenda. "We will not only win the next election," Ryan told the party faithful. "We have a unique opportunity to sweep and remake the political landscape." They don't need President Romney to lead the revolution. All they need is his consent.