With his candidacy now lying on its deathbed, it is past time for me to confess my secret shame: I kind of like Mitt Romney. I don't just like him strategically, the way many other liberals do, as the weakest potential Republican nominee, although I do like him that way as well. I'm saying that I genuinely sympathize with and relate to the man.
A non-trivial number of conservatives have decided, for one reason or another, that a Romney nomination would advance their interests; but that isn't the same thing as actual admiration. We actual Romney-philes are a tiny coterie, a decent chunk of which consists of his wife and many sons. But his appeal ought to be clear enough: He's whip smart and boasts impressive feats in business—a sharp contrast with the ne'er-do-well crony capitalist currently occupying the White House—and government.
Romney's many detractors do not dispute his attributes. The reason he has become the most loathed candidate in either party is that he's a flip-flopper (see “The Demagogue,” page 1).
I don't deny the charge. I'm not even sure his sons Tagg, Skip, and Biff (or whatever) would deny it if you got a few drinks into them, which of course you couldn't. What baffles me is that Romney has been held to a far harsher standard than his competitors. Rudy Giuliani, now peddling himself as the scourge of liberal New York, once endorsed Mario Cuomo over Republican George Pataki. He has outright reversed his once strongly liberal positions on gun control, immigration, and “partial-birth abortion.”
John McCain's ideological makeover has been even more brazen. As recently as four years ago, McCain fashioned himself, accurately, as a scourge of corporate America in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt. He had lambasted the GOP establishment as evil and corrupt, was breaking with his party on nearly every domestic policy fight, and openly flirted with an outright jump to the Democratic Party. (“I was struck by how much we were in common,” remarked the Democratic Leadership Council's Will Marshall after one meeting.)
What makes these guys any less fake than Romney? Romney's explanation of how he changed his position on abortion—the revelation supposedly struck him during a discussion of stem-cell research—may be preposterous, but at least he acknowledges his conversion. Giuliani and McCain resolutely profess to have remained consistent.
And yet, somehow, it has been decided that Romney is the flip-flopper of the race. Once the label has been attached, it can never be removed, and almost anything can be shown to affirm it. (Recall the ridicule Romney suffered after he mentioned that he "saw" his father march with Martin Luther King but later had to admit he was not actually present at the march with his dad.) In classic junior-high fashion, the other flip-floppers have smarmily joined in the ridicule. “You are the candidate of change,” sneered McCain, who required a whole six years to go from declaring on his campaign bus that “The Christian Right is neither” to publicly embracing Jerry Falwell.
Romney has acquired the aura of an overbearing, upper-class phony. But I see him as more of an earnest dweeb, desperately, and unsuccessfully, trying to fit in with his new crowd. I can almost picture him coming home from the Republican debates, crying his eyes out that he wants to move back to Massachusetts because all the other candidates keep laughing at him. If this image leaves you unmoved, you're made of sterner stuff than me.
The arbitrary nature of Romney's mistreatment is all the more stark when you consider the long and storied tradition of Republicans lurching suddenly starboard to keep up with their party's rightward shift. George H.W. Bush, scion of the moderate establishment, hastily abandoned his opposition to supply-side economics and support for abortion rights upon accepting the vice presidency. Former mainstream Republican Bob Dole once told a conservative audience, “If that's what you want, I'll be another Ronald Reagan.” Republicans gratefully accepted both conversions. Dole, in particular, was widely lauded for his dark, cynical wit.
So why is Romney ridiculed for doing nothing more than taking the joke to a higher conceptual plane? Last year, The Boston Globe obtained his campaign strategy document laying out what it called “Primal Code for Brand Romney.” “Primal” is a perfect description for Romney's view of the GOP base. He approaches conservatism not as a respectable ideology but as a series of (in Lionel Trilling's famous phrase) irritable mental gestures. The strategy memo suggests he drive home the message “Hillary = France." Romney has promised to “double Guantanamo” and demanded that Mike Huckabee apologize for criticizing President Bush's foreign policy. This is like a Hollywood parody of a right-wing Republican—think “Bob Roberts,” or Tom Cruise's character in Lions for Lambs—but more clever.
If Romney's public sentiments were more intelligent than this, I'd fear he actually believed it. Giuliani's conservatism, to offer up one contrast, is intelligent enough for me to think he genuinely buys into it but still dumb enough for me to fear for the future of our country if he manages to win the election. The mindless tribalism of Romney's pandering is paradoxically reassuring. The form his pandering takes is a measure of the contempt in which he holds the electorate in general and Bush-era Republicans in particular. I share his sentiments completely. We like to imagine our presidents as heroic leaders in whom we place our trust. But this conception of the presidency is unattainable, and unbefitting the democratic spirit even as an ideal.
It is this cynicism that has made Romney an outcast. Romney's dwindling band of supporters understands the essentially transactional nature of the presidency. In its endorsement, National Review's editors frankly conceded they didn't care if he had flip-flopped. “Whatever the process by which he got to where he is on marriage, judges, and life,” they editorialized, “we're glad he is now on our side—and we trust him to stay there.” Just so. A president, unlike a monarch, is not the embodiment of the national spirit. He is a public servant hired to do a job. Romney's sin has been to strip the veneer off the edifice of the political system to reveal the ungainly reality beneath.
This article appeared in the January 30, 2008, issue of the magazine.