Mitt Romney is running as the Trojan Horse candidate of 2012, the big empty gift to America who will be wheeled into the gates of Election Night only for the bottom to pop out the next morning and whatever lurks inside to reveal itself. Watching his small disaster of an interview on Face the Nation this past weekend, we can only conclude he believes he will win the presidency by answering and offering nothing in the most calculatedly vacuous campaign since Richard Nixon’s in 1968. The difference is that in 1968 the American public knew Nixon all too well and, compared with the specifics of Nixon that people had understood for years, a vague Nixon was considered a step in the right direction. The more vague he got, the more people talked about a “New Nixon,” and whatever the New Nixon might possibly be could only be better than the old one.
Raging among flackdom and the commentariat is an argument as to whether the election will be a referendum on Barack Obama’s first term or a choice between him and the alternative. The premise is flawed: Elections that involve incumbents are invariably both referenda and choices, even as we allow that the former is the horse before the cart. The public had mixed feelings about George W. Bush in 2004 and Bill Clinton in 1996, and in each case when the referendum that took place in the collective mind was inconclusive, the electorate made the choice to preserve the status quo. Frustrated enough, voters will take a leap of faith, but not blind faith. Up until a week before the 1980 election, an enormously unpopular President Jimmy Carter still ran neck and neck in the polls with challenger Ronald Reagan until a single debate rendered Reagan an acceptable option, at which point tectonic plates shifted. Obama is not as weak as Carter but weaker than Bush (who won by only three points) and certainly more vulnerable than Clinton (who got less than half the total vote), and he will be the first incumbent president outspent by the opposition, maybe by a lot.
The president’s precariousness notwithstanding, however, one of the few things that can be said flatly about this election and campaign is that the Romney who was on Face the Nation will not win. Conceding that he’s gotten incrementally better, he remains an even more hapless candidate than challengers of yore Robert Dole and John Kerry never mind Reagan, and the same polls that show Obama’s approval in the mid-40s and that two out of three Americans think the country is heading the wrong direction also display a longer memory than the public is given credit for. Even as Obama is held responsible for not sufficiently turning around the country’s financial circumstances, Obama’s predecessor is held responsible for creating them, which wouldn’t matter if Romney had an inkling let alone an idea that sounded new. The prospective Republican nominee appears to be under the impression that the fewer ideas he can get away with—new or otherwise—the better; thus he strikes bold stances that are silly or scary on issues of less concern like Russia while taking no stance whatsoever on what are considered more pressing matters at hand like the economy or immigration. This is the Romney predicament, that the Trojan Horse Romney may be the best Romney that Mitt Romney has, any or all other existing Romneys incapacitated by either an unforgiving base or an opportunism that voters will find unpersuasive if not contemptible.