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.