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Authentically Yours

Against his primary opponents, what looked like Romney’s characteristic defect ended up serving him well.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Running a blue state between 2003 and 2007, Romney governed to the right of the campaign he had run, moved steadily in a pro-life direction, cut taxes and spending, and gave the state a more conservative government. Now he presents himself as an authentic pragmatic conservative, who sells himself as the market requires, who governs based on his business experience, who moved a blue state as far to the right as was humanly possible, and whose skills at financial management uniquely equip him to achieve the conservative goals of cutting back spending, reforming entitlements, and reviving a broken economy. This makes him an operational conservative, whose works bend the world in a rightward direction, but without the ideological grounding underneath. The question is, is this sufficient? The answer may be yes, and no.

Gradually, many conservatives came around to the view that a pragmatic conservative was the best they’d be able to get this season, and that it may not be all that bad. “Romney is instinctively not necessarily a political conservative, he’s instinctively a problem solver,” said Jim DeMint, who has semi-endorsed him. “Romney is temperamentally conservative, but not particularly ideological,” Gerson wrote. “He reserves his enthusiasm for quantitative analysis and organizational discipline. He seems to view the cultural and philosophic debates that drive others as distractions from the real task of governing—making systems work.” 

Are there models for this? Yes, there once were: Back in the day, popular presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were the ultimate pragmatic centrists, not only indifferent to ideology but biased against it, regarding it as an emotional affliction of unstable and dubious minds. Romney, whom Michael Barone has described as a cultural product of the Eisenhower-JFK era, may also belong to their political model, one in which centrists were the plausible heads of the “right” and “left” parties, and the social issues and the wars that went with them had yet to emerge. In that age, battles were held more often within, and not between, parties, and though the two presidents differed greatly in style—as did Adlai E. Stevenson and Richard M. Nixon—there was little daylight between their ideas. Eisenhower and Kennedy did have a “core” (as does Romney), which is their unquestioned love of their country, but they paid little heed to party and ideology. An authentic businessman who pushed himself into the public arena, an authentic pragmatist from the ’50s and ’60s in a more polarized setting, Romney seems a little at odds both with his time and the more passionate wings of both parties. And this, with his luck, makes him seem like a stranger: He may be simply too good to be true.

Rich men abound, but Mitt Romney has had a level of luck seldom seen in our candidates for high office: Handsome and rich, with a stunning blonde wife and five presentable sons, from a famous, close, loving, and privileged family, he has been lucky and successful all his life. Did we mention rich? His problem on that front is not authenticity. As Gerson put it, “His problem is political. He talks about money as though engaged in a discussion with his stock broker. So $374,000 from paid speeches is ‘not very much.’ ” The stunning blonde wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs.” He doesn’t know much about NASCAR, but he has friends who own the cars. He proposed to Rick Perry a $10,000 bet. He’s far from the only rich man to run for president, yet he seems less at ease with his riches than did other wealthy candidates, and one can think of three reasons why: Unlike the Kennedy brothers and Roosevelt cousins, who lived on trust funds and went into public life in their twenties, he made his own money, and spent much of his life doing so. Unlike his father, who made cars, or the elder George Bush, who went drilling for oil, he was an investment banker who made money with money, which seems less substantial. And there may be a third reason, concerning a rare form of privilege that comes to few of all classes. Unlike the Roosevelts, Bushes, and Kennedys, he has had a life unmarred by most kinds of misfortune—an unruffled run of good luck.

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