COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA -- There's a wonderful video clip floating around of Mitt Romney during his 1994 Senate campaign, going into a beleaguered greasy spoon restaurant in Waltham, Mass. He walks into the dim main room and exclaims, "My goodness! What's going on here today? Look at this! This is terrific!" Except it wasn't terrific at all -- it was a smattering of older folks sitting bent over their cups of coffee, most seated all by themselves, barely reacting to Romney's noisy entrance.
I thought of that video these past two days, because Romney uses pretty much the same sort of exclamation now on entering his events. Arriving in the hotel foyer in Sioux City on New Year's Eve, it was: "What a sight this is! Oh, this is so much fun. My goodness, does this city always do this when we come to town?" When he moved into the main event room, it was: "You're kind to be here tonight. On New Year's Eve. Gosh. Isn't that something?" Granted, the events are considerably more crowded than that coffee shop, filled with people happier to see him, but somehow the echo of that Waltham declaration makes his giddy enthusiasm now seem something less than fully genuine. It doesn't help matters that these lines are being spoken, like all of Romney's lines, at a speed that is several RPMs too fast, which prevents him from being able to even pretend that he is fully absorbing the scene in front of him before he declaims on the wonderfulness of it all.
Surely, his advisers have told him many times to try and slow things down, but it's not sticking. With his mercifully brief stint in Iowa coming to a close, Romney is moving fast and mailing it in. In Sioux City, he spoke for only 25 minutes; in Council Bluffs tonight, he spoke for less than 20, racing through his stump speech and leaving without taking questions from the attendees, some of whom had spent considerable time waiting outside in the cold winds that blew in over the weekend. He clearly is feeling peachy about how things have turned out for him in Iowa, the state that crippled him last time but where Rick Santorum, with all his momentum, will be hard pressed to pull off a Huckabee-level upset. And even if he were to, so what? He's not going anywhere, just as Huckabee didn't last time, and instead of John McCain waiting in New Hampshire to capitalize on a weakened Romney, there's only Jon Huntsman.
But watching Romney, I found myself looking past the caucuses and the primaries and assessing his pitch as a general election message, because that is essentially what it is evolving into -- his vision of an "opportunity society" standing against Obama's "entitlement society" where the government wants to "make America more like a European welfare state...where the government's role is to take from some and give to others." As overstated as that is, it is the predictable way for a Republican nominee to frame this election. What strikes me listening to Romney, though, is what an imperfect messenger he is for what he also calls the "merit society." For starters, it would help a lot if the person making the declaration that we are not a "nation limited by the circumstances of our birth" was not someone who started life...at the very top. Romney's attempts to skirt this fact are comical. In Sioux City, he referred to his father, the CEO of American Motors and later governor of Michigan, as "a guy who made Ramblers," as if George Romney was right there on the line. Likewise, when describing his "opportunity society," he tries to place himself in the masses who enjoy the trickle-down benefits of success. "I believe in an America where...education, hard work , risk-taking and dreaming and maybe a little luck can produce extraordinary results and rewards which are generated not only for the people who achieve them but for the rest of us, who work for them," he said in Sioux City. Rest of us??
Even relatively innocuous lines about his business acumen have an unfortunate ring, given the line of work he was in, slicing and dicing companies at Bain Capital: "I understand how jobs come and how they go," he said in Council Bluffs. Indeed he does. Then there's his "feel your pain" litany, which comes off as something less than Clintonesque. "It's been a tough three years," he said in Council Bluffs before conjuring up pre-Obama gravy years: "You can remember well when every week you thought about what movie you might take the kids to at the end of the week instead of thinking about can you get enough meals on the table at the end of the week." This line rings distinctly off key not only because it's coming from a man who is worth an estimated $250 million, who has bequeathed a $100 million trust fund to his own kids but because it is being addressed to crowds that are distinctly well-fed, the Rotarian set in the cities he is visiting.
This is not to mention, of course, how Romney will wear on the broader electorate over time when it comes to his more basic personal appeal. I take people's word that he has improved on the stump since 2008 -- I saw him several times then but my memory is dim. Regardless, though, he is still one awkward fellow. In addition to the fast talking and forced cheer, there is the strange business of his arms. When he gets applause or a laugh, his arms, which normally are up in front of him holding the mike, drop straight down to his side, as if connected to some signal in his brain that orders him to pause to let the audience reaction play out. This is usually accompanied by an odd facial gesture -- mouth closed, lips pressed tightly together, and eyes opened wide and unblinking, a look that, when the cause of the applause or laughter is a shot at Obama (which it usually is), conveys a sort of pleasurable chagrin, a "more in sorrow than in anger" condescension toward the poor incompetent president.
Neither of these shortcomings -- Romney's credentials as a Horatio Alger or his affect on the stump -- were of any concern to the people I spoke with at his events. In one sense, the Romney supporters here may indeed be "moderate" in that they tend not to be hard-core evangelicals; but in another sense, they are a harder sort than anyone, because they detest the president and simply want the guy who can knock him out. Before Romney's arrival in Sioux City, I chatted up a prim and proper woman in her seventies, a retired bank manager named Kay Lagan, and asked her why she liked Romney. After a few lines, she veered onto her real focus. "Obama's a disaster," she said. "In the first place, he should never have gotten out of kindergarten. All he had going for him was black and a big mouth. It's frightening."
After Romney spoke, I asked her what she made of him. "He's everything I hoped he'd be," she said.
A few moments later, Romney emerged and made his way out into the hotel foyer, where a wedding party that was also using the hotel was congregating. "Oh my goodness," Romney said on discovering the bride and groom. He mugged for some pictures with the bride as a young man in the wedding party shouted from the staircase: "For conventional marriage!"
As Romney broke away from the bride, I grabbed him for a quick question: Would he, as his New Year's resolution, agree to release his tax returns, as every other nominee has done the past few decades? He froze, looked at my tape recorder, and then broke into the same smile he had brought into the Waltham restaurant years ago. "Ha ha ha," he said, and moved on.