At the 757th Republican debate over the weekend, Newt Gingrich zinged Mitt Romney for attempting to portray his decision to forego a re-election race in Massachusetts as reluctance to become a lifetime politician. ” … Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” Gingrich said, observing that Romney’s poll numbers were dropping in 2006, and he was eyeing a presidential run, which he did indeed make in 2008.
True enough. Romney’s explanation was transparently self-serving and contrived. That said, Romney cannot hope to compete in the phoniness league Newt Gingrich belongs to. At that level of play, candidates dare to suggest that they take huge retainers from Freddie Mac in order to offer advice “as a historian,” and commit serial adultery because “partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”
Still, most of the time, when Gingrich speaks, his audience has a sense that they are watching a thoughtful person spontaneously expressing his views. When Santorum speaks, the listener doesn’t wonder whether he’s checked the reply with his pollster. With Romney, the feeling is more like pressing the buttons on a jukebox. Ask about defense and the “military second to none” disc slides into the player. Ask about the economy and the “businessman” record slips into the slot. Such competence is not easily attained, but the effect over time can be numbing, rather than inspiring.
Gingrich and Rick Santorum have advanced the process by highlighting this vulnerability of Romney’s. Like New York Republican Thomas E. Dewey, nominated for president in 1944 and 1948, Romney seems to be the candidate from central casting. Dewey, commented Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “looks like the little man on the wedding cake.”
It isn’t that Romney lacks the ability to think on his feet. When reporter Andy Hiller asked a series of questions on gay rights culminating in what he clearly imagined was a gotcha — “When is the last time you stood up and spoke out for increasing gay rights?” — Romney parried with “Right now.”
Something is causing Romney to play it too safe. Without straying very far into armchair psychoanalysis, it is worth examining the experience of the candidate’s father, George Romney.
A popular three-term governor of Michigan, the elder Romney was the odds-on favorite to challenge President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Romney had proved himself a success in business when he took over the failing American Motors company and turned it into a profitable company. His margins of victory in Michigan were commanding and included 30 percent of the black vote. Handsome, honest and unpretentious, he was admired throughout the Republican Party and the nation. In 1966, a national poll found that 54 percent of respondents preferred him to the sitting president.
But in the course of a single afternoon, the Romney campaign became a national joke. As Theodore White told it in “The Making of the President 1968,” Romney, who had a tendency to revise his previous comments and positions, told a radio host that he changed his mind about Vietnam. The way he phrased it proved his undoing. Referring to a trip he had made, Romney said, “Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there …” He went on to explain that upon his return he had done his own study of the nation “going back to World War II” and concluded that the war was not necessary.
You might suppose that the anti-Vietnam press corps might have approved of this demonstration of independent thinking. But Romney was, after all, a Republican. Moreover, as White makes clear, he was a particular kind of Republican — naive, innocently moralistic and old-fashioned — qualities that the liberals in the press were inclined to loathe. Within days, the “brainwashing” quote was everywhere. Eugene McCarthy added a cruel but amusing quip that no brainwashing was needed, as “a light rinse should have been sufficient.” Romney’s polls tanked. He was finished.
Mitt Romney seems determined never to let his guard down, never to permit a slip that could prove fatal. His extreme caution is psychologically understandable but may prove politically costly in its own way. Trying too hard to avoid mistakes is itself a mistake. People want to vote for a person, not a robo-candidate.