Mitt Romney has one advantage over his rivals above all others: He is running a presidential campaign. None of his competitors has been able to manage it in quite the same way.
A Romney rally in Exeter, N.H., the other day was a textbook exercise in traditional presidential politics. The venue was big, a high school gym. The advance work was flawless. The American flag backdrop was enormous. The three generations of the Romney family arrayed in front of it were so picturesque that they might have arrived straight from a photo shoot for a Tommy Hilfiger advertisement.
When so many commentators have said that, with anti-establishment sentiment running so high, everything is different in Republican presidential politics, Romney has been the old-school candidate. He hews to the familiar instruction manual with a pharisaical devotion. Raise scads of money and build a national organization. Always stay on message and evaluate every move with an eye to the general election. Win endorsements. Take apart opponents precisely to the extent necessary, no more, no less.
As Philip Klein of The Washington Examiner has observed, Romney has been the only guy to show up for the job interview wearing a suit. He hasn’t been on a book tour masquerading as a presidential campaign (Herman Cain). He hasn’t banked everything on the debates (Newt Gingrich), or showed up unprepared (Rick Perry). He hasn’t bet on his performance in just one state (Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman). Anyone who has won a presidential nomination during the past 30 years would recognize what Romney is doing and why.
After Santorum tied Romney in Iowa and landed in New Hampshire, he immediately began engaging hostile college students in long Socratic dialogues on hot-button social issues. A few months ago, Romney had a New Hampshire town hall where he, too, was asked repeatedly by kids about gay marriage. He refused to say anything beyond that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman and that he had already answered the question. Santorum’s approach is more sincere and intellectually laudable; Romney’s approach is more studied and likely to achieve his larger aim.
And less satisfying. Romney’s campaign is all technique and no music. His speech in Exeter was schmaltz piled on top of saccharin in a perfect storm of substanceless sentimentality. First, he said he believed in America. Then, he said he loved America. And in conclusion, he quoted verses from “America the Beautiful.” In Romney’s case, patriotism is the first refuge of a politician who doesn’t dare say anything new or interesting. It wasn’t until New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Romney supporter, took the stage and slapped down a heckler that it felt like someone had thrown open a window in the tidy structure created by Team Romney to let in a gust of spontaneity and irrepressibly joyful combativeness.
Neither of those will ever be a quality associated with Romney. He continues to excel in debates by routinely coming up with answers that feel as though they were produced by a crack marketing team for maximum unassailability. His stumbles are so rare that they become as noticeable as the tiny wobbles of an Olympic skater trying to nail a triple Lutz. Challenged over the weekend on why he didn’t run for re-election as Massachusetts governor in 2006, he said he “went back into business,” even though he was already running for president when he left the governor’s mansion. Romney wanted to hang on to the scripted presentation of himself as a businessman above all else — plausibility be damned. It was a small falsity that stood for larger worries about his genuineness.
Very few politicians have what it takes to follow the old rules with the proficiency of a Mitt Romney. It takes brains, discipline and managerial skill. But people have trouble warming up to the (almost) flawlessly executing candidate from a flawlessly executing machine. The Romney campaign notwithstanding, there’s no rule against inspiring people.
— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.