Back in the thick of the 2008 Republican presidential race, I asked a captain of American finance what he had made of Mitt Romney when they were young colleagues at Bain & Company. “Mitt was a nice guy, a smart businessman, and an excellent team player,” he responded without missing a beat. Then came the CEO’s one footnote, delivered with bemusement, not pique: “Still, whenever the rest of us would go out at the end of the day, we’d always find ourselves having the same conversation: None of us had any idea who this guy was.”
Here we are in 2012, and nothing has changed. What Romney’s former colleague observed of the young Mitt at close range decades ago could stand as the judgment of most Americans watching him at a cable-news remove now. That’s why his campaign has so often been on the ropes. That’s why, in a highly polarized nation, the belief that Romney is a phony may be among the very last convictions still bringing left, right, and center together. As a focus-group participant evocatively told pollster Peter Hart in November, Romney reminded him of the “dad who’s never home.” Nonetheless, this phantom has spent most of the campaign as the “presumed” front-runner for his party’s nomination. Amazingly, this conventional wisdom held up throughout 2011, even though 75 percent of Romney’s own party was searching so frantically for an alternative that Donald Trump enjoyed a nanosecond bump in the polls.
Now much of the 75 percent has identified the non-Mitt candidate who really does express where the GOP is today. Newt Gingrich is proud to stir a dollop of race into the vitriol he hurls at Barack Obama, “the food-stamp president.” He’s a human Vesuvius at spewing populist anger at all elites; attacks by the press or by Republican Establishment talking heads like Karl Rove and Joe Scarborough only make him stronger. And unlike any other GOP leader, he can boast that he actually realized the tea party’s goal of shutting the government down. The morning after Newt shut Mitt down in South Carolina, Rich Lowry, the editor of the pro-Mitt, anti-Newt National Review, channeled the horror of GOP grandees everywhere. “If Romney can’t right himself,” he wrote, then “every major elected Republican in the country will panic” and “every unlikely scenario to get another candidate in the race will be explored.” The names once again being floated—Mitch Daniels! Jeb Bush! Paul Ryan! Bobby Jindal!—have not been known to raise the pulse rate of anyone beyond the 25 percent of the GOP embodied by elite conservative pundits in Washington and New York.
What’s more likely is that the party’s panicked Establishment, and its Wall Street empire, will succeed in their push to crush Gingrich and prop up Romney in any way they can. They still see Mitt as the best available front man for the radical party the Republicans have become—the dutiful Eagle Scout who can hold down the fort as the right’s self-styled revolutionary rabble threaten to overwhelm today’s GOP elites the way the Goldwater insurgents once did Nelson Rockefeller and Romney’s father, George. Some of the same Beltway types who have reinforced Mitt’s presumed victory march since last summer believe he can be rebooted for the fall merely with some stern course correction.
As this narrative has it, Americans are at least comfortable with old, familiar Mitt—heaven knows he’s been running long enough. He may be a bore and a flip-flopper, but he doesn’t frighten the horses. His steady sobriety will win the day once the lunatic Newt has finished blowing himself up. As one prominent Romney surrogate, the Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, has it, Romney is “the most vetted candidate out there.” Maybe—if you assume there will be no more questions about Bain, the Cayman Islands, the expunged internal records from Romney’s term as governor, or his pre-2010 tax returns. Or about the big dog that has yet to bark, and surely will by October: Romney’s long career as a donor to and lay official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But you can also construct an alternative narrative—that the vetting has barely even begun, and that the “Mitt Romney” we’ve been sold since 2008 is a lazy media construct, a fictional creation, or maybe even a hoax.
For four years now, Republicans have been demonizing Barack Obama for his alleged “otherness”—trashing him as a less-than-real American pushing “anti-colonial,” socialist, and possibly Islamist ideas gleaned from a rogue’s gallery of subversive influences led by his Kenyan father, Saul Alinsky, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And yet Romney is in some ways more exotic and more removed from “real America” than Obama ever was, his gleaming white camouflage notwithstanding. Romney is white, all right, but he’s a white shadow. He can come across like an android who’s been computer-generated to be the perfect genial candidate. When forced to interact with actual people, he tries hard, but his small talk famously takes the form of guessing a voter’s age or nationality (usually incorrectly) or offering a greeting of “Congratulations!” for no particular reason. Richard Nixon was epically awkward too, but he could pass (in Tom Wicker’s phrase) as “one of us.” Unlike Nixon’s craggy face, or, for that matter, Gingrich’s, Romney’s does not look lived in. His eyes don’t show the mileage of a veteran fighter’s journey through triumphs and hard knocks—the profile that Americans prefer to immaculate perfection in a leader during tough times. Even at Mitt’s most human, he resembles George Hamilton without the self-deprecating humor or the perma-tan.