It isn't easy getting a read on what motivates Mitt Romney. He's always polished and prepped, his square jaw firmly in place and every word carefully planned and delivered as though it were part of a 57-slide PowerPoint presentation. He married his high school sweetheart and raised a gaggle of strapping boys, not a rebellious one among them (so far as we can see, anyway). He has no visible vices. When he's frustrated he gives a fake laugh. He never seems to get sad or angry. In short, it's hard to discern what turns the wheels inside him.
But those who try are homing on Romney's relationship with his father George Romney, car company CEO, governor of Michigan, and failed presidential candidate. And two of the smartest commentators around, Rick Perlstein and Michael Tomasky, have come to the same conclusion about the relationship of Mitt's political choices to what he saw happen to George's political career, and his presidential bid in particular. Here's Perlstein describing the kind of politician George Romney was:
His calling card was his shocking authenticity; his courage in sticking to his positions without fear or favor was extraordinary. In January of 1964, for example, the second-year governor received a letter (downloadable here) from a member of the top Mormon governing body reminding him of the "teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith" that "the Lord had placed the curse upon the Negro." Drop your support for the 1964 civil rights bill, the elder warned, arguing that God might literally strike Romney dead for his apostasy: "I just don't think we can get around the Lord's position in relation to the Negro without punishment for our acts," the letter said. Romney only redoubled his commitment – leading a march the next year down the center of Detroit in solidarity with Martin Luther King's martyrs for voting rights' in Selma, Alabama. In 1966, the Republican Party staked its electoral fortunes on opposing open housing for blacks. Romney begged them, unsuccessfully, not to.
And of course, Romney's 1968 presidential campaign unraveled after he committed an overblown "gaffe," saying that he had been "brainwashed" by generals and diplomats in Vietnam into thinking the war was going great, when it wasn't. "Mitt learned at an impressionable age," Perlstein writes, "that in politics, authenticity kills." It must be particularly painful for him, after trying so hard to avoid a gaffe like the one that destroyed his father's campaign, to find himself committing one gaffe after another. And that's not all—as CEO of American Motors, George Romney "would give back part of his salary and bonus to the company when he thought they were too high. He offered a pioneering profit-sharing plan to his employees. Most strikingly, asked about the idea that 'rugged individualism' was the key to America's success, he snapped back, 'It's nothing but a political banner to cover up greed.'"
The difference in their approach to business is a potentially fascinating topic, but what concerns us most is the political, and there's an important point about ideology that should be kept in mind when we watch Romney move to the center for the general election: There is no "real" Romney, ideologically speaking. That's true to varying degrees of many politicians (including Barack Obama); they have beliefs, but those beliefs will always be subject to adaptation and compromise depending on what's politically possible and necessary. It just happens to be more true of Romney than almost anyone else. As Tomasky argues, "Commentators have spent countless hours speculating whether Romney is "really" moderate or conservative. The answer is that he is neither, and both. The lessons he learned from watching his father fail to make it to the White House are: don't stick to your guns; be flexible; suit the needs of the moment. And so, in order to complete his father's unfulfilled destiny, he has decided to become his father's opposite."
The last few presidents have all had father issues of one sort or another. Barack Obama wrote a whole book about his struggles to form his identity with the shadow of a father whom he met only a couple of times. Bill Clinton never knew his biological father, and one of the key moments of his youth was when he stood up to his abusive stepfather to defend his mother. And in what is in some ways a parallel with Romney, George W. Bush spent much of his life defining himself as not like his father. George H.W. was patrician, George W. was down-home; H.W. was an achiever, W. was a screw-up. But unlike Mitt Romney, George W. Bush confronted his father directly, even challenging him to a fist fight ("You want to go mano a mano right here?") after driving home drunk and knocking over the neighbor's garbage cans.
That kind of thing was not for Mitt Romney. His rebellion, like everything else about him, was more methodical and controlled. I'm sure that if asked, he'd deny that he's trying to be what his father wasn't, but for both better and worse, he is who he is, whatever the reasons.