Bad as all this reads on paper, it’s even worse on video. And here Romney has run smack up against one of the defining realities of the 2008 campaign: YouTube, where clips of the old Romney stating his liberalish social views with apparently firm conviction have been on display for weeks. “Words on a page have an intellectual impact,” says Californian Republican media strategist Dan Schnur, “but words captured on video have much more emotional impact.” A print gotcha, in other words, makes a candidate look inconsistent or craven. A YouTube gotcha makes him look as if his pants are a towering inferno.
Romney doesn’t need to be loved by the right. “He just needs to be the tallest jockey at the track,” says a consultant.
Thus is Romney scrambling around the country, meeting with the hard-right brigades, offering deeply—deeply!—felt reassurances that he is really—really!—one of them. These reassurances take the form of a narrative, in which Romney, while grappling with the stem-cell question, meets with researchers and experiences a road-to-Damascus conversion. “I concluded that we should be wary of people who experiment with life, who experiment with our kids, and who toy with the building blocks of family and society,” he said in Baltimore. “On the issue of life, this fiscal conservative became a social conservative.”
How convincing is he about all this? To my mind, not very. God knows any half-sane columnist will defend to the death the right to change one’s mind. Yet the timing of Romney’s policy U-turns—at precisely the moment when he first got that I’m-a-gonna-run-for-president gleam in his eye—inevitably raises suspicions. What can you say about a guy who used to maintain that his role model was his father, former moderate Michigan governor George Romney, but now leaves his dad conspicuously off the list of his political heroes, instead citing Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower?
Needless to say, what matters isn’t what people like me might say but whether Republicans find Romney’s account of his switcheroos persuasive. And here the news is no less grim for Mitt. According to the latest Fox News poll, Romney’s support among Republicans nationally fell from 8 percent in December to just 3 percent at the end of January. To a large extent, Romney’s desultory numbers reflect low name recognition. But that they’re trending down instead of up should be, must be, freaking him out, even at this early stage.
In truth, the emergence of Romney as a top-tier candidate in the eyes of political insiders has had less to do with his strengths than with the staggering weakness of the Republican field. Until last fall, the putative front-runners for the support of the GOP’s Establishment conservative faction were senators George Allen and Bill Frist. But Frist was laid low by his joined-at-the-hipness to George W. Bush, while Allen consigned himself to the ash can of history by losing to Jim Webb in Virginia. Giuliani and McCain, despite their dogged efforts to assuage the right, continue to be viewed warily there—the former for his own social liberalism, the latter for his manifold betrayals to the cause eight years ago. And though Christianist wannabes such as Kansas senator Sam Brownback appeal to the GOP fringes, their obvious unelectability dooms them from the get-go.
The case for Romney’s viability, therefore, boils down to this: He’s the minimally acceptable man to the right who has a chance of winning. “Social conservatives rarely get their first choice, but they have veto power,” says Schnur, McCain’s communications director in 2000. “Romney doesn’t need to be their best friend; he just needs to be better than McCain or Giuliani. He needs to be the tallest jockey at the track.”
Can Romney be the Willie Shoemaker of presidential politics? Maybe so—but the more likely outcome, it seems to me, is that he’ll be the Pete Wilson of 2008. Back in 1995, recall, Wilson was the au courant Republican governor (of California) who was going to sweep into the presidential race and vanquish all before him. Like Romney, Wilson hailed from a state with a history of spawning presidential nominees. Like Romney, he had access to big money and a record of policy innovation. And, like Romney, he was a moderate whose drift to the right (on immigration) seemed utterly inauthentic. Wilson exited the race before the first primary vote was cast.
A fair observer would point out that that parallel is by no means perfect. Romney has assembled an A-list campaign team with tons of national experience; Wilson didn’t. And, unlike Romney, Wilson refused to yield to, er, modify his pro-choice stance. Even so, the central similarity is undeniable—and so are its implications. The real problem for Romney, as it was for Wilson, is not that he’s a cultist or a contortionist but that he’s a hollow man. And there’s nothing that the White Tape People will be able to do about that.