When the battle over Bain broke out in New Hampshire, both the Romney campaign and the right were blindsided. “Perhaps the most striking thing about the current fight over Mitt Romney’s career in private equity is how little we knew about it,” wrote Byron York, the conservative columnist at the Washington Examiner, adding that Romney’s “business experience has not been the topic of long and detailed public examination and debate.” He, like many of his cohort in the Fox echo chamber, seemed unaware that Romney’s Bain record has been debated for nearly two decades, starting with his 1994 battle with Kennedy (who engaged “truth squads” of downsized workers from a midwestern Bain-owned company to stalk Romney). That record has been examined repeatedly by mainstream journalists ever since.
Even as the Republican Establishment continues to prop up Mitt, it remains in denial about his long-term prospects. Romney rationalizers argue that Gingrich’s blunderbuss assault on Bain was a blessing in disguise, for it will force Romney to come up with an airtight defense before the fall. But Romney has been trying since 1994 to formulate answers to questions about his Bain career, his vast wealth, and his leadership role in his church. If he hasn’t found them by now, it’s because he doesn’t have them. And so his preferred route has been just to avoid tough questions altogether—and confrontation in general—by sticking to manicured campaign events as immaculate as his Brooks Brothers shirts. He tries to shun mainstream-news-organization interviews, and dropped the “Ask Mitt Anything” sessions with voters that were a staple of his 2008 campaign. Even straightforward interviews with sympathetic interlocutors like Fox News’s Bret Baier and the radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham throw him into a tizzy, if not a hissy fit. Remarkably, he received high marks for months for his steady demeanor and discipline in the Republican debates, but as we now know, all it takes is a tough question about his own biography to prompt a stammering answer and robotic herky-jerky head movements suggestive of a human-size Pez dispenser. His belated efforts to go on the attack against Gingrich often make him sound like an adolescent tattletale. In Romney’s best debate, last Thursday, he was still outshone by the also-ran Rick Santorum.
To escape the twin taints of Bain and his one-percenter’s under–15 percent tax rate, some Republican elders are urging Romney to “stake his campaign on something larger and far more important than his own business expertise” (The Wall Street Journal editorial page) or, as Fred Barnes suggested more baldly, to find “a bigger idea to deflect attention from Bain.” But even Mitt’s own spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, once described him (to the Des Moines Register) as “not a very notional leader.” Romney is incapable of an arresting turn of phrase, let alone a fresh idea. Running on empty, he resorts to filling out his canned campaign orations with lengthy recitations of the lyrics from patriotic anthems. (“Believe in America” is his campaign slogan.) Take away the bogus boasts about “job creation” at Bain and the disowned Romneycare, and what else is there to Mitt Romney? Mainly, his unspecified service to his church and his perfect marriage. That reduces him to the stature of the Republican presidential candidate he most resembles, Thomas Dewey—in both his smug and wooden campaign style and in the overrating of his prospects by the political culture. Even the famously dismissive description of Dewey popularized by the Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth—as “the little man on the wedding cake”—seems to fit Mitt.
No Republican has ever won the nomination after losing the South Carolina primary. No incumbent president since FDR has won reelection with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent on Election Day, and ours currently stands at 8.5 percent. No candidate with a 58 percent disapproval rating—especially Newt—is likely to win a national election, even for dogcatcher. But surely someone has to be nominated by the Republicans, and someone has to win in November.
“This race is getting to be even more interesting,” said Romney when conceding to Gingrich in South Carolina. As always, it’s impossible to know whether he really meant what he said or not, but this much is certain: He will continue to be the least interesting thing about it.