Willard Mitt Romney enters the press room at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, where a conclave of conservative GOP congressmen has gathered to plot its resurrection. Assuming his place before the cameras, the former Massachusetts governor checks the floor to find his mark: two strips of white tape forming a small X on the low-pile carpet beneath his feet. Romney plants his shoes squarely on the X and starts offering answers so tightly scripted and robotic that he brings to mind Max Headroom—then, all of a sudden, he’s distracted and off-kilter. “This white spot on the floor here, this marker, is stuck to my heel here,” he mutters, staring downward and doing a little jig, ignoring the question just put to him (on Iran) until the damn thing finally falls from his loafer.
The metaphor suggested by Romney’s performance is too perfect to resist. By all accounts, including his own, Romney has been for most of his life a middle-of-the-road Republican of moderate views on issues from abortion to gun control to taxes. But ever since he decided to run for president—a decision he will make official on February 13—he has labored to present himself as a rock-ribbed man of the right. He has hired a team of White Tape People to tell him where he needs to stand to win his party’s nomination. He has gamely hit his marks. And yet now, just as Romney seemed to be establishing a foothold, he finds himself increasingly tangled up in his own inconvenient record.
The conspicuous and occasionally ruinous flip-floppery of presidential candidates is nothing new, of course. (See Kerry, John, 2004.) Nor is avid pandering to the GOP’s extremist constituencies by previously non-wing-nut Republicans. (See McCain, John, 2008.) Romney’s offenses in both these categories are, no doubt, egregious. But the fact that, in spite of his current struggles, Romney is still taken seriously illustrates a number of the central dynamics driving the campaign on the Republican side. At a moment when the Democrats, miraculously, have at hand a troika of top-tier candidates—Clinton, Obama, Edwards—who are capable of drawing thousands-strong crowds (in early 2007, for heaven’s sake) and look like eminently credible winners, the GOP is saddled with a crop of hopefuls at once uninspiring and implausible. Also with a president who seems determined to dig the already-cavernous hole in which the party is mired all the way to China. As Republican despond edges toward despair, the desperate search for a savior is beginning to kick into high gear. Hence the rise of Romney.
At first glance, he has the appearance of an attractive standard-bearer. A successful businessman (he made a fortune as the CEO of Bain & Company and founder of Bain Capital) and organizer of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics before becoming the Bay State’s governor, in office he pushed for the passage of a health-care reform plan applauded on both the right and the left. He’s well spoken and great-looking, with blindingly white teeth and a head of hair that rivals Ronald Reagan’s in the annals of Republican follicular achievement.
But Romney’s drawbacks are as glaring as his assets—starting with his Mormonism. “Look, let’s be honest, Mormons are weird,” says a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Massachusetts, voicing a view widely shared by secularists and Evangelicals alike. (According to a recent poll, only 38 percent of voters say they’d definitely consider backing a Mormon for president.) Romney, a church “elder” who served as a missionary and whose great-grandfather had five wives, will surely attempt to deal with the issue by pulling a JFK: declaring that his faith would never impinge on his political obligations. Equally likely is that he’ll abandon lame-ass humor as a tactic, given that his japes in the past—“I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman … and a woman,” he cracked to Don Imus last year—seem, unsurprisingly, to have put no one’s mind at ease.
At the moment, however, Romney’s religion is causing him fewer headaches than his policy gymnasticism. As a challenger to Ted Kennedy in 1994 and in his 2002 statehouse bid, Romney was unequivocally pro-choice (“I believe that abortion should be safe and legal”). Today, he is just as unequivocally pro-life. On gun control, Romney in 1994 supported the Brady bill and a ban on assault weapons, adding, “I don’t line up with the NRA.” Today, he declares, “I’m a member of the NRA.” On gay rights, in 1994 and 2002, Romney argued that he’d be a more aggressive advocate of domestic partnerships than his Democratic foes—and then did little, in the view of the right, to resist the legalization of gay marriage in his state. Today, Romney thunders against the latter concept and against civil unions too. Same story on stem-cell research.
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.