During the 2012 campaign, I, like every liberal writer whose job it is to comment on politics every day, wrote many unkind things about Mitt Romney. Much of the time I found him more sad than despicable; politicians who nearly reach the pinnacle of their profession while being manifestly awful at politics are a rare and curious breed. Like Al Gore before him, Romney's discomfort with the requirements of campaigning was so close to the surface that he couldn't help but inspire a kind of pity. That isn't to say that I didn't find plenty of his statements and policy positions contemptible, because I certainly did, and said so without hesitation. But in the end, Romney wasn't as easy to hate as some other politicians might be.
So a year after he joined that small, melancholy club of presidential losers, it's time that even those of us who thought it would be a terrible thing if he became president can see Romney as a human being. In January, Netflix will be releasing a behind-the-scenes documentary called "Mitt," and the preview is surprisingly endearing:
On an episode of The Office from a few years ago, the desperately insecure character of Andy Bernard (played by Ed Helms) hits upon a strategy to ingratiate himself with people, called "personality mirroring." He begins not only repeating what people say to him, but adopting the precise manner and mood of whoever he's talking to. This is pretty much how Mitt Romney went about running for president. A man deeply unsuited to the gladhanding required of a politician made himself into one, through a titanic act of will. And just like when Andy Bernard did it, it was incredibly awkward and off-putting. As the old saying has it, sincerity is the most important thing—if you can fake that, you've got it made. Trouble was, Mitt just couldn't, hard though he might have tried.
And it turns out, Mitt didn't even want to run for president a second time. Veteran reporter Dan Balz is coming out with a book about the 2012 campaign, and he learned of the internal Romney family deliberations. They took a vote, and 10 out of 12 Romneys, including Mitt himself, said he shouldn't run. Here's an excerpt:
As an aficionado of American regional resentment and distrust, not to mention someone who grew up in the Garden State, I find the question of whether Chris Christie could take his Jersey style national and win the hearts of Republican presidential primary voters to be quite interesting. Would a party whose center of gravity lies firmly in the South being willing to seriously consider not just a guy from New Jersey, but a guy who is obviously from New Jersey? Christie recently told the New York Post that he had lap-band surgery a couple of months ago, so by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around, he could look a little less like Bobby Bacala and a little more
like the kind of rugged outdoorsman Republicans favor. But will that be enough? Yesterday, Philip Klein of the Washington Examinerargued that the answer is going to be no:
It's hard to argue there isn't a large technology divide between Republicans and Democrats. The Obama campaign was lightyears ahead of Team Romney in terms of its online sophistication, including its presence on social media. As a result, some Republicans argue for a greater focus on technology as a way to appeal to younger voters and recover lost support in national elections. Stuart Stevens, chief guru for the Romney campaign, disagrees.
Around this time in 2004, liberals were panicking. The Democratic nominee for president, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, was lagging behind George W. Bush, who appeared to be on his way to a second term. This was baffling, and not in a Pauline Kael kind of way. It wasn’t so much that liberals couldn’t imagine the person who would vote Bush—at the time, it wasn’t hard to find a Bush voter—but that conditions were terrible, and it was a stretch to believe that America would re-elect a president who brought the country into two messy wars and the most sluggish economy since WWII.
As often as not, parties nominate candidates for president that pretty much all their own partisans acknowledge are less than inspiring. Democrats were so excited about Barack Obama in 2008 partly because their previous two nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore, rode to the nomination on a stirring sentiment of "Well, OK, I guess." The same happened to Republicans, who adored the easygoing George W. Bush after the grim candidacies of Bob Dole and Bush's father.
A new Wapo/ABC poll shows that 59% of the voters think President Obama will be reelected vs. 34% who think Mitt Romney will win. Note that this is a completely different question than who the voter supports. The polling data on who people will vote for gave Obama a mere 3% lead, 49% to 46%. In other words, there are millions of voters who want Romney to win but don't expect him to do so.
Yesterday, conservatives got all outraged because a microphone picked up a few journalists discussing with each other what questions they would ask Mitt Romney at what turned out to be his disastrous press conference on the events in Cairo and Benghazi. Aha! they shouted; Michelle Malkin told the Mensa convention that is "Fox & Friends" that "If it looks, sounds, talks like journo-tools for Obama, it is what it is." As Erik Wemple patiently carefully explained, in contexts like press conferences—by both Democratic and Republican politicians!—reporters often plan out what questions they'll ask. And you know what? They ought to do it more often. Maybe they wouldn't ask so many dumb questions.
It's certainly a problem that politicians are so sneaky and evade the questions journalists do ask. And the reporters don't really have time to sit down and engage in a process of deliberation so they can use their collective knowledge and wisdom to arrive at the questions that will prove the most edifying for the public. (And I should say that the problem isn't exclusive to political reporters. If I hear one more sports reporter who can't think of anything more interesting to ask an athlete than "What does this victory mean to you?" I'm going to scream.) But more often than not, what sounds on the surface like a zinger of a question doesn't actually amount to much more than an invitation for the politician to repeat his talking points.
In need of just a bit more Romneystrength. (Flickr/Jason Means)
Until a few days ago, few people cared all that much what Mitt Romney thought about foreign policy. It isn't an area where he has any experience, or, let's be honest, anything in particular to say. His denunciations of President Obama's record have a kind of rote quality. There's nothing really substantive there, no attacks on any particular decisions Obama has made or initiatives he has undertaken. What it all consists of is the idea that Obama is weak, and "apologizes for America" (I'm not going to bother debunking that one again). But when Mitt goes off on that stuff, you can tell he's just doing it to satisfy the Sean Hannitys of the world and assure the Republican base that yes, I hate him as much as you do, and now let's talk about the economy.
But in every presidential race, there are external events that force the candidates to change their agenda, which is what has happened now. And yesterday the Washington Post published this article, in which we learn just how powerful Mitt Romney could be:
Advisers to Mitt Romney on Thursday defended his sharp criticism of President Obama and said that the deadly protests sweeping the Middle East would not have happened if the Republican nominee were president.
Do reporters dislike Mitt Romney? And if so, what kind of a difference might that make? I'm prompted to ask by this post from Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage, in which he expresses doubt that back in 2000, reporters disliked Al Gore and liked George W. Bush. I won't spend time on that question—it has been extensively reported over the years, with not only quantitative analyses of the press coverage the two received, but plenty of on-the-record comments from reporters who were there at the time testifying that they and their colleagues found Bush to be a friendly fellow and thought Gore was a pedantic, phony liar. (In his post, Gelman confesses to not owning a television, which obviously calls into question his standing as a true American.) But the more interesting question now is the one about Romney.
This is sometimes difficult to assess clearly, since we all have a tendency to see press coverage that reinforces our beliefs as fair and objective, and coverage that contradicts our beliefs as unfair and biased. Liberals and conservatives both do this, although only conservatives created an entire industry out of crying "liberal bias!" and succeeded in getting virtually everyone on their side to weave that belief into their opinions and rhetoric on every single issue. If you're trying to assess it systematically, "bias" is extremely difficult to measure, particularly on the grounds people usually argue about. Researchers have come up with a variety of measures, but they almost inevitably leave important questions unanswered, in part because we usually have an implicit standard of objectivity we're referencing, and that standard raises questions that are hard to answer.
Eight years ago, innumerable commentators said "values voters"—in other words, voters with conservative values—were responsible for George W. Bush's re-election (liberal voters, apparently, don't have values, they just have opinions). They noticed a correlation between religiosity and the propensity to vote Republican, and in the most religious of all industrialized countries, this "God gap" was routinely characterized as a problem that Democrats had to solve if they were to avoid electoral doom. In fact, today the "God gap" is more of a wash for the two parties, and in the future it could become the Republicans' problem.
Mitt Romney is pro-baby, and he doesn't care who knows it! (Flickr/tvnewsbadge)
Every candidate confronts the question of how detailed they should be in their policy plans, and the basic calculation goes as follows: I want to seem substantive and serious, so it's good to have detailed plans, but I don't want the plans to be so detailed that they give my opponent something to use against me and allow voters to find things they don't like. So usually they find some middling level of specificity, and tolerate whatever criticism they get from one end for not being detailed enough, and from the other end for specific ideas people don't like. But rarely does the question of how specific you're being become a story in and of itself.
Mitt Romney has arrived at that moment, when his unwillingness to reveal exactly what he wants to do in a variety of policy areas is becoming a story in its own right. Here's Steve Kornacki writing about it in Salon. Here's the Wall Street Journal editorial page criticizing him for not being specific. Here's a TPM report on other conservatives scolding Romney for his vagueness. Here's an L.A. Times editorial asking for specifics on Romney's tax plan (which we'll get to in a moment. Here's an NPR story about the specificity question. And President Obama is picking up the issue and using it as an attack, which helps propel the story forward.
It's one thing to be vague because you think getting bogged down in a discussion of details will distract from your broader message, but it's another thing to be vague because a discussion of details will reveal that you're promising things you can't possibly deliver.
I don't think even the staunchest Republican would try to tell you that Mitt Romney's convention was more successful than Barack Obama's, and coming out of the two, it now looks like Obama has moved ahead of Romney by a few points. Whether this lead will solidify or the two will move back to being tied is impossible to know yet, but the most interesting question may be how the two campaigns react. I can predict pretty confidently that the answer for the Obama campaign is: they won't. As I discussed yesterday, if you're in the lead you have no reason to change anything you're doing, while if you're behind there's a powerful temptation to start casting about for something new to turn things around.
And one other part of this dynamic is that when you're behind, everybody in your party starts bellowing, both privately and publicly, that you have to immediately shift from the strategy you're employing to the strategy they are advising...
Practice makes perfect" is usually quite a dependable adage, but Mitt Romney seems to have made proving it false his political life's mission. The map of his second presidential campaign can be plotted from one amateurish move to the next. Flip-flops, flubbed lines, and flimsy arguments have rendered his candidacy a tower of questionable campaign tactics toppling under the weight of their own tangly deception.
This weekend featured a strange event on the campaign trail. With Pat Robertson seated behind him at a speech in Viginia—that's the guy who says God personally warns him about upcoming world events, believes the September 11 attacks were divine punishment for homosexuality, and thinks feminism leads to witchcraft—Mitt Romney got his culture war on. Romney recited the Pledge of Allegiance and thundered, "The pledge says 'under God.' I will not take God out of the name of our platform. I will not take God off our coins and I will not take God out of my heart." So fear not, America: As long as Mitt Romney becomes president, your pennies and nickels will be safe from creeping atheism.
This may tell us more about Romney's strategy for winning Virginia—a state divided between a conservative, rural southern part and a liberal, suburban northern part—than it does about his strategy for winning the country as a whole. But when Romney makes such an appeal, it only serves to remind us how rare it is. Of course Romney's primary focus on the economy is dictated by conditions in the country, and the fact that an incumbent president struggling with unemployment over 8 percent really ought to be doomed. But it's also true that if there were potential customers for fist-shaking attacks about "God, guns, and gays," as the old Republican playbook had it, Romney would be moving much more aggressively to exploit that market. But he isn't, for one big reason: Liberals have won the culture war.