"Authenticity” has been all the rage in the Republican primary season, which bounced back and forth from one extreme to the other, with the field neatly split between the five or six people who were all too authentic, and one who wasn’t authentic enough. There was Mitt Romney, who was inauthentic as a politician and as a conservative, against six or so others whose authenticity was only too evident: Michele Bachmann, authentically provincial; Ron Paul, authentically cranky; Herman Cain, authentically ludicrous; Jon Huntsman, authentically condescending; Rick Perry, authentically unprepared; Rick Santorum, authentically preachy; and Newt Gingrich, authentically Newt. Except for Huntsman, whose first day was his best, and after that was authentically moribund (and Paul, who is a whole other story), each of the group flared up in succession, shone briefly, and then flamed out in the heat of the moment: All authentically not built to last. If you can fake sincerity, as they say, you’ve got it made, but authenticity may be a different matter, a double-edged sword that can wound the possessor. What is the right kind, and how can you get it? Let us look at these people, and see.
Mitt Romney has no fewer than three authenticity deficits: as a politician, as a conservative, and as what is known as a “regular guy,” three things a viable GOP candidate ought to be able to be. To start, he is inauthentic as a politician because it’s a second career for him: He is a businessman trying to play in a different ballgame, and finding his skills don’t convey. “Politics is [his] second language, and he . . . speaks it awkwardly,” said Michael Gerson. “His ploys are too obvious, his humor forced, his instincts unreliable.” He doesn’t take smoothly to small talk with strangers, alarms don’t go off in his head to warn that today’s phrase is tomorrow’s damaging sound bite, he can’t gauge the “feel” of an audience and provide an endearing response. He is the opposite of, say, Bill Clinton, described in Sally Bedell Smith’s biography as “capable of constant emotional scans of everyone in the room in real time while he was thinking,” and able to recognize, quantify, and respond to the emotional state of his listeners.
When Romney tries to engage, it is somehow off-putting: saying he likes to be able to fire people, saying his father once moved a factory out of a town that he was speaking in; telling a man who was out of work and who would be soon out of money that he too has been unemployed for some time. It would not have been hard to put off the renovation of his multimillion-dollar beach house in California (or cancel the car elevator that would be installed), but he went ahead anyhow, making an in-kind donation to Obama’s campaign. His primary wins, ground out the hard way with grit and endurance, were often drowned out the next morning by a faux pas made by himself or his aides. Authentic enough in his role as a really good businessman trying and failing to be a good politician, he may find his best bet is to argue the businessman type is just what we need at this time in the Oval Office, to avoid fiscal disaster.
Romney is also authentically not a conservative, at least in the eyes of the truest believers who make up his party’s base. The son of a moderate mid-’60s governor, he is suspect by lineage, and his behavior since he began running for office has given them small cause for cheer. The problem is that he combines a pragmatic approach toward governing with a marketer’s approach toward getting elected—giving the audience what he thinks it wants—on the theory that in order to do any good things in office, one has to be in it first. Running for the Senate in 1994 in blue Massachusetts (and successfully for governor of the state eight years later), he said he was pro-choice, pro-gay rights (but not pro-gay marriage), and was not aligned with the Reagan-Bush legacy. Running in 2007-2008 in the Republican primaries, he presented himself as the total conservative—pro-life, pro-business, anti-tax, pro-traditional marriage—against a field of men who in some ways were all viewed as heretics: John McCain, the perennial maverick, Mike Huckabee, the big government conservative, and Rudy Giuliani, the pro-choice, thrice-married mayor of Gotham. In 2012, Stuart Rothenberg noted that blocs of moderate primary voters who had gone for McCain in 2008 now voted for Romney, while Romney’s conservative voters of four years ago had left him for others, and took this as proof of Romney’s inauthenticity. In fact, it was likely a matter of contrasts: In 2008, a moderate voter might have preferred McCain to Romney, but found Romney acceptable, and then considered his 2012 rivals—Perry and Gingrich and Santorum—as beyond any possible pale.