Romney, You're No Ronald Reagan

Which one of these does Mitt Romney resemble?

It's axiomatic in politics that winning makes you look like a winner. No matter how hard-fought a primary race might be, once you've vanquished your opponents and emerged victorious, you acquire a glow that makes your weaknesses look less important than the strengths that allowed you to triumph. But has there been a candidate who emerged from a tough primary season looking weaker than Mitt Romney does now? Having struggled mightily to overcome a collection of repellent politicians and outright cranks, he stumbles toward the Republican nomination with his character flaws cast in sharp relief. And things may only get worse for him. A look back at history tells us that defeating a sitting president is an unusually hard thing to do, and only the most talented politicians are capable of it.

These primaries have revealed many things. You can be governor of a big state like Texas and still be a nitwit. Running a chain of pizza restaurants does not adequately prepare one to run for president. Most everyone still hates Newt Gingrich. More significantly, it has shown that appealing to the Republican base's ugliest impulses is not a way to win the affection of a majority of Americans. 

It has also revealed, perhaps most importantly, that whatever his talents and accomplishments, Mitt Romney is not particularly good at running for president. He is awkward and difficult to know, he makes one gaffe after another reinforcing the two most damaging parts of his political persona (being an out-of-touch rich guy and being a flip-flopper), and though he prepares relentlessly, he is prone to stumbles when he has to think on his feet.
 
You may remember that Barack Obama, on the other hand, is very, very good at running for president. Americans find him quite appealing (his personal approval has always exceeded his job approval). He is capable of stirring oratory, but can also sit down and shoot the breeze about sports (try to imagine Romney giving an interview like this one Obama gave to Bill Simmons of Grantland). He has demonstrated that he can chart out a winning strategy and stick with it, and he has an extraordinary ability to turn potentially damaging setbacks to his advantage. Unfortunately for Romney, presidents who are good politicians usually get re-elected.
 
When you take a quick tour through our electoral history, the pattern is striking. Over the last 100 years, there have been 16 elections in which a sitting president ran for re-election. Twelve times the incumbent won, and only four times did he lose. Those four losing presidents were Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. So what can we say about these presidents, and is there any evidence that Barack Obama belongs in their company? Three of them (Hoover, Carter, and Bush) came up for re-election in terrible economic times—Hoover in the Great Depression, Carter at a time of runaway inflation and interest rates, and Bush at the tail end of a recession. Ford struggled to overcome the legacy of pardoning the most corrupt president in memory. And though Carter ran a good race in 1976, none of the four could be called natural politicians, brimming with the talent necessary to charm the country. 
 
So it appears that if you're going to unseat a sitting president, you'd better have national conditions favor you and have an opponent who is not very good at the whole being-a-candidate thing—or at least worse at it than you are. And the kind of slash-and-burn campaign that crushes someone with whom voters aren't that familiar—what George H.W. Bush did to Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton did to Bob Dole, or George W. Bush did to John Kerry—just won't work on an incumbent president. The voters have already pretty much decided who the president is and what they think of him, so dramatically changing those opinions is next to impossible. It's no accident that the candidates who unseat sitting presidents, like Clinton or Reagan, were compelling personalities and deft campaigners who captured the public's imagination. And even the most partisan Republican wouldn't claim that Mitt Romney is a more interesting personality or a better campaigner than Barack Obama.
 
As you look over the last century of elections, it's hard to find a single case where the clearly more naturally talented politician got beaten by the less talented politician. You might point to 1968, when Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey, but that's a close call—Humphrey was no Reagan or Clinton. And yes, the painfully awkward Dwight Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson twice, but Stevenson was not exactly possessed of the common touch. When a truly talented president faced a far less talented challenger—Clinton against Dole, Reagan against Mondale, Johnson against Goldwater—the result was always a rout. 
 
Ask a political scientist, and she'll tell you that the ability to give a rousing speech, make wise strategic decisions, and perform well on the trail and in debates only matters at the margins. The big driver of votes is the economy, followed by whether the country is at war. But it looks like 2012 is going to be an election in which the margins matter a great deal. The economy is likely to be no longer terrible, but not yet great. We're out of Iraq, and are slowly trying to extract ourselves from Afghanistan (far too slowly for most Americans, but still). So every day for six months or so, Americans are going to watch and listen to Barack Obama, a guy about whom they have complex feelings but whom they basically like, and Mitt Romney, a guy who isn't even capable of winning the affection of his own party. 
 
My favorite moment of the 2008 campaign came in July, when candidate Obama went to visit American troops in Kuwait. They gathered in a gym, he spoke for a while, and then someone gave him a basketball. Obama bounced the ball a few times, then on his first and only shot, drained a three-pointer to the cheers of the crowd. I pictured the staff watching in McCain headquarters, throwing up their hands and saying, "C'mon! That's just not fair!" Everything the guy touched seemed to turn to campaign gold.
 
I suppose it's possible that Mitt Romney could develop into a skillful campaigner with a sweet outside jumper. But nothing that has happened so far gives even the slightest indication that such a transformation is in the offing. Is Romney more like the Ronald Reagan of 1980, or more like the Bob Dole of 1996? The answer seems obvious. 
 

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