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Mr. Perfect’s Slip

Mitt Romney did everything right to win the Republican nomination—so why is he drifting? Maybe it’s the party that’s changed.

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Illustration by Darrow  

In the days leading up to Mitt Romney’s ballyhooed declamation last week on “faith in America”—a.k.a. the Mormon Speech—there existed among politicos, pontificators, and even some of Romney’s advisers a widely shared opinion: that the gambit was a no-win proposition. That it would spotlight the very issue he had sought to downplay all year long. That he would have to choose between demystifying his religion, and thus risk alienating Christian-right voters who consider his church a cult, and skirting all matters of theology and doctrine, and thus risk accomplishing nothing. Romney was promising, after all, a defining oration in which he would “offer perspectives on how my own faith would inform my presidency.” But how precisely could a devout Mormon do that without discussing, er, Mormonism?

Romney’s answer was a ringing endorsement of “our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty,” a speech carefully crafted, at times eloquent, and almost entirely free of specific discussion of his spiritual beliefs. Instead of elucidating how being a Mormon (a word that he uttered only once) would shape his outlook on policy or politics, he emphasized the “common creed of moral convictions” that binds together Catholics (name-checked thrice), Jews and Muslims (twice), Evangelicals, Lutherans, and Pentecostals. Indeed, so vague and feel-goody was Romney that even William Bennett was moved to observe on CNN, “I could see this speech … being given by any of the Republican candidates and most of the Democrat candidates, frankly.”

Here in the proud mecca of what Romney scorned as the “religion of secularism,” the Romney speech will surely be greeted with a mixture of resignation, queasiness, and incredulity. (Romney: “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom”—apparently we agnostics aren’t merely sodomites but slaves as well.) But, of course, Romney’s talk wasn’t meant for our ears. It was aimed at Republican primary and caucus voters, especially those in Iowa, where suddenly, astonishingly, his path to his party’s nomination is being threatened by the unexpected surge of Mike Huckabee.

Yet even if Romney managed to assuage the fears or dampen the prejudices of some of those voters—a humongous if—it hardly means that the former Massachusetts governor is back on the road to victory. For all of the quantifiable problems that Romney’s Mormonism has always posed to his candidacy, there are larger obstacles that he faces. From the outset, he has run a textbook campaign, the kind that at any prior moment in Republican nominating history would have likely made him a commanding front-runner. That he manifestly isn’t, less than one month before the first votes are cast, says something about his weaknesses as a politician, to be sure. But it speaks even more loudly to the thudding collapse of the GOP coalition, and, with it, the descent into abject chaos of the process by which the party selects its kings.

A few days before Romney’s religion address, I caught up with him at a Rotary Club luncheon in Manchester, New Hampshire. The candidate arrived immediately after the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, peeled off his jacket, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and uncorked a disquisition on the topic of Romneynomics. The various elements of his platform were achingly predictable: “impose spending discipline,” “reform entitlement system,” “win the global economic competition,” “open markets for America,” and the ever-popular “implement pro-growth tax cuts and oppose tax increases.” What was surprising—nay, astonishing—was the form this lecture took. Instead of a standard-issue stump speech, Romney offered, I kid you not, a PowerPoint presentation.

Now, Romney’s business background, his sheen of managerial competence, is a central element of what he’s selling. The years at the helm of Bain & Company. The turnaround of the Salt Lake City Olympics. Still! Even in the drowsiest corporate settings, there is no greater buzz kill than a PowerPoint performance. Yet here was Romney, pummeling his audience with 21 slides and 50 bulleted points in 25 minutes, scarcely giving them a chance to breathe, let alone applaud—which they did just once, near the end, when Romney blurted out the insight that fuels his boundless optimism: “You know what? We’re a pretty darned good country!”

To no small extent, Romney’s entire presidential bid has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation come to life: linear, analytical, bloodless. The game plan that he and his advisers devised was straightforward. First, raise a ton of dough. Second, play the inside game: Court the Beltway Republican Establishment, neutralize the most vocal sources of potential opposition, rack up gold-plated endorsements. On issues, cravenly disregard what Romney once stood for, tailoring his positions to make him minimally acceptable to the three legs of the GOP stool: social, economic, and national-security conservatives. Pour resources into Iowa, win there and in New Hampshire (where Romney retains a pronounced quasi-hometown edge), then roll to the nomination.


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