When Mitt Romney was 20 years old, he watched his father enter the Republican presidential race as a towering figure—a self-made auto executive turned popular progressive governor—and leave it a punch line. George Romney’s undoing was Vietnam. He attempted to approach the issue subtly, adjusting his position as events changed and his convictions deepened, but finally and famously met his undoing by employing the term “brainwashing” in explaining how he had come to distrust the official briefing on the war that he’d received from the Johnson administration. His campaign was subsequently chewed to bits between the twin gears of a mindless press corps and rabid right-wing nationalists. “The rest of our [electoral] system I know pretty well,” young Mitt wrote to his father, “only one thing I can’t understand: How can the American public like such muttonheads?”
Four and a half decades later, muttonhead-lovers continue to madden Romney, whose frustration has oozed out through blind quotes from his aides. One Romney adviser has sized up the conservative base like so: “They like preachers. If you take them to a tent meeting, they’ll get whipped into a frenzy. That’s how people like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich get women to fall into bed with them.” His disdain for the electorate pops up in other ways as well. Forced to defend his reform of the health-care system in Massachusetts, Romney invariably insists that it in no way resembles the hated socialistic scheme imposed by Barack Obama. It uses private insurance. Its individual mandate reflects a belief in personal responsibility. He knows perfectly well that this is true of Obama’s plan as well and is counting on the fact that his audience does not. It is the patronizing strategy of a parent who checks under his child’s bed for monsters rather than undertaking the tiresome and probably hopeless work of explaining that there’s no such thing.
To an extent, Romney’s secret antipathy is a healthy quality. The truly fanatical politicians are those who detect no contradiction between their interpretation of what is right and the desires of the great and good American public. (Michele Bachmann undoubtedly has a far deeper respect for the electorate than Romney could ever muster.) But feigning respect is exhausting. Romney does not suffer fools gladly—he does suffer them, though, because there are a lot of fools out there, and he has put himself in the fool-suffering business. His constant discomfort on the trail is the agony of suppressed contempt.
And so he trudges stiltedly along, treating the campaign as a grubby series of chores he must endure so as to assume his rightful place in the Oval Office. In this he most closely resembles George H. W. Bush, another patrician son of an esteemed moderate Republican forced to jettison core beliefs as his party lurched rightward. (Bush, before joining Ronald Reagan’s ticket, had once been pro-choice and called supply-side economics “voodoo economics.”) Bush, like Romney, was cynical enough about electioneering to think that what you say to win votes—flag-burning! Willie Horton!—need not bear any relation to your manner of governing. It is no coincidence that Bush governed far more sensibly than his more naturally populist son.
Of course, conservatives eventually turned on Bush for making a pragmatic compromise to reduce the budget deficit and abandoning his vow to never, ever raise taxes. That is one of the problems with the dream of governing like a Prescott Bush or a George Romney, after you’ve run for office by selling yourself as a muttonhead.