Willard Milhous Romney
Be careful about writing Mitt Romney’s political obituary before they fill him with formaldehyde and pour him into his mahogany condo. Like that other frequent Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, Romney has a remarkable talent for stepping into it, sinking and soiling himself rotten as he extricates himself. Romney’s latest stumble — complaining to rich donors about the “47 percent,” which was Webcast by Mother Jones yesterday — would bury a less tenacious candidate. But Romney’s talent for powering past his embarrassments ranks up there with that of Nixon, a champion of compartmentalization who believed that as long as he had a pulse he had a chance of winning the White House.
Like Nixon, Romney is not only at war with the Democrats but also with the base of his own party, which has never been convinced that he’s a true conservative. Both Nixon and Romney have dressed their pragmatist campaigns in conservative clothing, but with the exception of their cultural biases against sex, drugs and pornography — and their instinctual disrespect for disrespecters of authority — none of it has ever rung true. The stink of inauthenticity wafts so heavily from both that their early biographers have incorporated it into the titles of their books, as historian David Greenberg pointed out to me in an interview. The Real Romney, published this year, and 1960′s The Real Nixon, both posit that what you see is not what you get with these two men.
“Romney is the most patently phony presidential candidate since Nixon,” says Greenberg, author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. “The most talented politicians express a natural ease, by backslapping or chit-chatting with people. Nixon and Romney don’t have that skill, but they try anyway.” The failures of Nixon and Romney to connect, to seem “real” or to appear likable have resulted in both doubling their efforts to be personable and human, making even the sympathetic cringe.
The camera hated Nixon, and it showed. In 1968, Roger Ailes, now head of Fox News Channel, worked on the Nixon campaign as a consultant and improved the candidate’s stagecraft. Yet the camera still magnified Nixon’s internal discontent. Romney, a more handsome version of Nixon, doesn’t sweat or glower when facing the lens, but press encounters tend to give him the yips, jamming his efforts to pave a communications groove with voters. Like Nixon, Romney reflexively despises the press, which he blamed for the disaster that was his July foreign policy trip.
Had either Nixon or Romney grounded himself in ideology — conservative or otherwise — realness wouldn’t be as conspicuous a problem. They’d be dull politicians, reciting from their catechisms like Rick Santorum, if you seek a flesh-and-blood example. But say what you will, nobody ever doubted whether Santorum had an anchor, and nobody will ever write a book titled The Real Santorum. Pragmatists like Nixon and Romney, who have few core beliefs beyond the personal, require staff pollsters and strategists to tell them where they should be on issues.
Liberal writers such as Paul Krugman and Jonathan Chait would have you believe that the Mother Jones video reveals the true, inner Romney, somebody who regards the poor, the sick and the retired as grifters. If only that were true. He doesn’t even have that conviction. As a pragmatist politician speaking to wealthy donors behind closed doors, Romney is content to say what they want to hear: That the 47 percent are parasites and the donors are exalted beings.
Romney owes much of his early campaign reputation as an unprincipled waffling weasel to his major accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts, Romneycare. Romney distanced himself from the measure during the primaries, as the Washington Post reported in early August, but once he secured the nomination, his campaign cited the legislation as a political plus, evidence that he had the skills to “reform” the healthcare industry. This sort of calculated duplicity brings us back to Nixon, who campaigned as a conservative but who once in the White House supported the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, wage and price controls, Amtrak, affirmative action and other codicils to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Obviously, every politician over-flatters supporters, makes voodoo dolls out of reporters and reverses himself. Nixon had a pretty good excuse for his flip-floppery: He cared primarily about foreign policy and would do almost anything to avoid domestic policy battles. But what does Romney really care about? He’s been running for president non-stop, since 2007, and I still haven’t a clue.
Here’s a good roundup of conservatives who denounced Romney’s 47 percent riff. If you understand the inner Romney, riff me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com or let me riff you at my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: This 1967 Lincoln-Continental convertible parade car, used by former U.S. President Richard Nixon, waits to be sold at the 34th annual Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction at Westworld in Scottsdale, Arizona, January 28, 2005. REUTERS/Jeff Topping