IN MY PREVIOUS life as a blogger, I was a prominent supporter/shill for Mitt Romney. Having officially morphed into a journalist this week, I hoped to get my hands on the elixir that gives New York Times reporters the Olympian detachment that so distinguishes them. Alas, I woke up today much the same as I went to bed last Friday--an unrepentant Mitt Romney supporter.
Frankly, this hasn't been the best of times for Romney fans. It seems like the Romney campaign chooses a different theme for each 7-10 day cycle. Over the past several weeks some decided lemons have blemished the batch. Romney's vow to move "In God We Trust" from the rear of our coins to the front was a dreadful piece of cornpone pandering. His boast over the weekend that he represented the "Republican wing of the Republican party" was even worse. Who at Romney headquarters thought it was a good idea to echo Howard Dean's rhetoric? Someone please tell me that person's not still pulling a paycheck from Romney '08.
At lunch a couple of weeks ago, a voracious follower of politics challenged me in regards to Romney, "How come people don't like him?" The question's premise isn't quite accurate--where Romney has most actively engaged the electorate in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and even South Carolina, he has made great progress in the polls. But the question does get to the heart of something. For some reason, Romney provokes a lot of hostility from a lot of people.
It may be because he looks like a politician straight from central casting. Good-looking and fast-talking, Romney appears and acts the way one imagines a politician would. After eight years of seeing George W. Bush wrestle with the English language (and usually lose via submission), you'd think conservatives especially would welcome the thought of a standard bearer who can express himself clearly and without undue effort. Alas, politicians remain one of our most reviled life-forms. The fact that Romney strikes people as a politician to the core doesn't work to his benefit.
Anyway, I'm not the ideal guy to answer why some people don't like Romney. After all, I like him. But I will venture an additional guess--I think it has something to do with the fact that Mitt-haters sense his wheels are always spinning. They think he cynically calculates every statement for maximum political advantage.
Even if the narrative of Romney as an opportunistic flip-flopper hadn't achieved some traction last winter, this would have been a problem for him. His brain truly doesn't have an off switch. He is always thinking, always calculating. He has a restless mind that surrounds and smothers every issue and every problem. In truth, his combination of electric intelligence and relentless intellectual curiosity is his greatest strength.
By this point in the campaign, the candidates have heard every question they're going to get about 100 times and most have developed robotic answers to all of them. Not Romney. His wheels are still spinning. That's why he does so much vamping on the stage, sometimes to solid effect and sometimes disastrously, as when he compared his sons' service on his campaign to our soldiers' service in the military.
ROMNEY FACES ANOTHER PROBLEM. All the Republican candidates substantively stand for pretty much the same things. The key question for the Republican electorate on most every issue will be, "Who do you trust?" For instance, Rudy Giuliani says he'll appoint judges cut from the same cloth as Roberts and Alito. The Mayor will insist Republican voters can trust him to keep his word on that matter if elected. His opponents will say otherwise.
After 10 months, the race has boiled down to its essence. Each candidate will be left to say that he's the trustworthy one, and that his opponents are dishonest politicians saying anything to gain office. In other words, the last four months of the nomination process promise to be relentlessly ugly.
This isn't Romney's home turf, and not because he's too gentle a soul to get down in the mud. Anyone who knows anything about the companies Romney ran (Bain & Company and Bain Capital) knows that the kind of guy who excelled in those arenas can sling political mud if he's of a mind to do so.
The problem for Romney with the 2008 election's emerging paradigm is that he's most impressive when displaying his command of the issues. If Romney's going to spend most of his time insulting the other guys and saying they can't be trusted, then his campaign won't capitalize on his greatest strengths--his affability and his intelligence. His campaign will neutralize its candidate's greatest strengths.
I've known Mitt Romney for almost 14 years. I've always thought he would make a great president. Romney's intellect and genuine decency are truly impressive. Yesterday, his campaign unveiled yet another new theme: "Change begins with us." While this nugget probably knocked some focus group in Sheboygan on its collective ear, its sheer vapidity is almost painful. Right now, Romney is running a campaign of empty platitudes and constant attacks.
If the Romney campaign allows the country to know the man that I've gotten to know, Romney has an excellent shot at being the next president. If Romney's campaign continues on its current path, he'll likely be folding up his tent shortly after Iowa.
Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.