Monday, December 24, 2007

The Decline and Fall of Mitt Romney

As late as Thanksgiving, I was convinced not only that Mitt Romney would win the Republican presidential nomination, but that he also stood a reasonably good chance of beating the Democrats in the general election. Since then, the former Massachusetts governor has done everything in his power to prove me wrong. As we reach Christmas Day, 2007, Romney faces the growing prospect of losing both the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary. Should that occur, he will almost certainly join his dad, who failed in 1968, as yet another footnote in the annals of promising campaigns that fizzled long before the swallows returned to Capistrano.

Given that some of you actually thought that Fred Thompson was going to win, I really shouldn't have to defend myself, but I will anyway. Here's what I figured: John McCain would get pummeled on the immigration issue. Check. Rudy Giuliani would find himself, at long last, unable to outrun the shadow of his own myriad scandals. Check. Thompson's much vaunted charisma would dissipate as soon as he stopped reading from other people's scripts. Check. Mike Huckabee, though superficially appealing, would emit extremist vibes that would be picked up and luxuriated over by the national media. Check. Sam Brownback's, Tom Tancredo's, and Duncan Hunter's candidacies would exist primarily in their own minds and they would never venture outside the precincts of single-digit obscurity. Check, check, and check.

Romney, then, stood to benefit from this process of elimination. Voters uneasy with the candidate's Mormonism would ultimately choose principle over prejudice and throw in with the candidate whose views on the issues, at least this time around, were consistently and unfailingly conservative. The GOP base would conclude that Romney never really meant all those things about abortion and gay rights that he said back in Massachusetts. He simply did what he had to do to fool the liberals and capture the governorship of the only state that voted for George McGovern in 1972. He did, after all, put up a fierce fight against gay marriage during his final days in Boston.

So what went wrong? Well, first it turned out that Romney, who had the good looks of a department store mannequin, also possessed the mannequin's personality. Even his jokes sounded scripted and he delivered each bon mot with the sincerity of a second-year high school drama student. During the presidential debates, his Spock-like demeanor contrasted badly with Giuliani's nervous intensity, McCain's calm frankness, and Huckabee's Gomer Pyle witticisms. Romney was the cold political calculator selling, more than anything else, a clear-eyed, bloodless competence. In the end, he evoked unflattering memories of an earlier Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis.

Still, as a rich and stable man in a poor and often unhinged field, Romney remained in a strong position in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. He and Giuliani competed for the frontrunner tag, and most pundits assumed that the two would ultimately face their big showdown in South Carolina or Florida. Romney, opposing a twice-divorced Catholic, decided that his Mormonism required no explanation even to the millions of Christian conservatives who regarded his faith as heresy at best and cultish at worst.

And then along came Mike Huckabee.

The former Arkansas governor, on the strength of standout debate performances, cute advertisements, and good press, started to rise in both the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. If nothing else, Huckabee's ascendance made clear that Romney had not yet closed the deal with evangelicals. The Mormon murmurs increased and suddenly the airwaves were abuzz with damaging dissections of the church's teachings. Romney quickly shelved his previous strategy of don't ask, don't tell and decided it was time to give The Speech.

I have already commented on the candidate's address at the Bush Library in College Station, Texas, so I won't belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that Romney badly misjudged his target audience. The candidate barely addressed Mormonism per se, indeed only mentioning the church by name on one occasion. Instead, he delivered a largely boilerplate speech, laden with clichés about family and marriage and patriotism, evidently dedicated to persuading the religious right that he shared their various prejudices. And indeed he did share them, all but one.

Only Mitt Romney seemed not to understand that his mandate on that December morning was not to pander, but to reassure. He needed to demystify the Mormon Church, explain what his faith meant to him, and turn attention away from the controversial 19th Century teachings and toward the thriving, modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that exists today. The fact that he didn't do so was unhelpful; the fact that he appeared to be consciously avoiding doing so was devastating.

Having blown this opportunity, Romney not only allowed Huckabee to gain on and finally pass him in Iowa, he also somehow opened the crypt and permitted John McCain once more to walk among the living. Romney's response to this sudden burst of ill-fortune has been shrill and ineffective. One day, he loudly demands that Huckabee apologize for daring to suggest that President Bush's arrogant foreign policy is arrogant. The next, he attacks John McCain for having changed positions on the question of tax cuts, inexplicably bringing the issue of flip flopping back to the front burner.

More than anything else, though, the loss of frontrunner status seems to have deprived Romney of the glowing self-confidence that had been his greatest strength. Rather than humanizing him, the candidate's attacks on his surging opponents have only served to make Romney seem colder and more petulant. Like Dukakis before him, Romney, a candidate without ideological anchor, seems unable to emerge from his first serious skid. But at least Dukakis managed to win his party's nomination before spinning irreversibly toward oblivion.

To be fair, Romney may still emerge as the Republican nominee. The GOP field remains weak. Mike Huckabee is not reacting well to his initial weeks in the white-hot spotlight. Rudy Giuliani may be permanently tarnished by his ethical difficulties. John McCain must still survive the immigration dead-enders who dominate his party's base. Fred Thompson continues to sleepwalk and mumble.

But even if he does survive, Romney is no longer the formidable contender that he appeared to be two or three months ago. He may yet be the man that Hillary and Obama most fear. But they almost certainly don't fear him as much as they once did.

UPDATE: Welcome to all of you who are visiting this site for the first time. There's a lot of Election '08 commentary on the main page and in the archives. Please indulge. I'll be back to respond to comments this afternoon (last minute shopping calls away me right now). I hope you'll return often.

8 comments:

colecurtis said...

Mitt Romney's lies have caught up to him now I am waiting for Huckabee's to catch up to him and all the dirty politics that he is behind to come to light so people can see him for what he really is a rip and a con.

Jeff said...

Interesting argument. I'm curious why Intrade, Iowa Election Market, and the London markets disagree with respect to Mitt's chances

Will said...

Your opening 'checks' are a bit premature mate. We're still in the Spring Training of the presidential campaign season.

Almost 100 years ago, the opening line of Will Rogers: "All I know is what I read in the papers" is certainly applicable to most Americans today.

From you to the talking heads on Sunday morning political TV shows, to even Conservative Talk radio hosts - all are guilty of taking the bait of the Liberal Media that is actively and aggressively pre-screening candidates and narrowing the publics' choices. The media, and even the hosts of debates, are not giving reasonably equal coverage to every candidate.

Proof of this notion is how Huckabee soared out of obscurity virtually overnight. A month ago virtually all the outlets covering the Republican race had the public believing that the race was between Rudy, Mitt, Fred & maybe McCain (virtually ignoring the other 4 presidential candidates ... more if you go back a few more months).

What the Huckabee episode has taught us in this unprecedented presidential election cycle is that the polls are meaningless and the experts aren't. The polls basically parrot what the Liberal Media tells us to think. Not one vote has cast yet.

Huckabee got a break and bypassed the pre-screening Liberal Media. Now however, the other candidates (and some of the public) are looking closer at Huckabee's record and discovering concerns with his stance on immigration, taxes, paroling criminals and more. Huckabee's 15 minutes may be about up already.

Gilmore, Brownback, Tancredo and others who quit before the first pitch probably had no business being in the race. Kudos to those still in the race on both sides who recognize the race is still early and that in this unique cycle, who knows. Nice to see that there are several candidates that are presidential already by not wilting from the challenge of unfavorable polls. Any person who hopes to be President better have the stomach to march on in spite of polls (how did representative government evolve to become so dependent on polls manufactured by elites?). Other nations around the world may be smarter that the USA in terms of their approach of banning polling during at least portions of election seasons.

True and determined Conservatives like Duncan Hunter recognize that the race is just starting. Although Tancredo endorsed Romney, blogging evidence shows that Tancredo supporters are moving to Hunter. In my opinion, Thompson will pull out next - and a good portion of his supporters will gravitate to Hunter as well.

Name recognition - seems like a reasonable concept on the surface that could influence decision making by voters. Isn't it interesting that the Liberal Media was able to take a name that epitomized obscurity (Barak Obama) and legitimized him by turning him into a Rock Star over the last 12-18 months?! Nah, there's no bias at work in the media.

The public deserves some blame too. Try going door-to-door or talking to folks at any shopping mall. See if you can find 10% who can name the candidates vying in the televised debates - from either party. At least half will give you some clichéd jive about not trusting politicians or being tired of all the campaigning. Mix in a relentless Liberal Media bias that props up the media's candidates in the Democrat race and center-left candidates in the Republican race (virtually ignoring real Conservatives), and the USA will get what it deserves.

Representative government takes effort by individuals. In addition, how did the public get a collective lobotomy in terms of shying away from public discourse about politics and religion? Is that what our founding fathers had in mind when this nation was created? No way! Not only is effort required by citizens to sustain responsible representative government for future generations, but more diligence than ever is required due to the ubiquity of the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy's manipulation that is constantly in motion and getting more and more sophisticated with each passing day.

From the vantage point of Christmas Eve 2007: Mitt could win, Rudy could win, Fred could win, John McCain could win, John Paul could win, Alan could win, Duncan could win.

Anonymous said...

Curious... No mention of the one candidate that may truly come out of the back and surprise everyone. The one who is setting records for donation$. Dare I mention his name here for fear of a 3rd degree flame? (pssst, he's an M.D. from Texas)

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

Hi everyone, thanks for the comments. Some responses follow:

Colecurtis: I think Huckabee's wave has already crested, and the same media people who built him up are now busy tearing him down. You can find my thoughts on Huckabee here: http://panicinyearzero.blogspot.com/2007/12/why-mike-huckabee-will-not-be-your-next.html

Jeff: I don't follow the election markets, so I'm not sure if you're saying the markets disagree with me or with one another. Either way, I think it's important to consider the election markets for what they are: distillations of the current conventional wisdom as derived from polls, pundits, and general "buzz". My guess is that these markets will be less accurate than usual at least in the early stages of a campaign with multiple and constantly changing frontrunners. Everyone is really just guessing right now (including me).

Will: You're right that we're still in Spring Training, although we're at that point when the rosters have been set and everyone has a rough idea of which teams have a shot and which ones don't. By now, if you lack both money and polling numbers, you're probably out of luck. On that basis, I would consider Duncan Hunter finished, along with most of the third-tier Democrats.

Also, I think that much of what you ascribe to liberalism is actually the media's desperate search to find the next big thing. They need viewers, so they can't let the story get stable. Thus, Obama vs. Hillary, and the rise of Mike Huckabee.

Finally, let me respectfully disgree with one final point: Alan Keyes cannot win.

Anon: I didn't forget about Ron Paul, I'm just not sure what to make of him. I suspect he'll do better in Iowa than some people suspect, and perhaps as well in Nevada, but he'll sputter out after that. He's certainly succeeded (at least money-wise) to a degree than nobody anticipated. The problem is that the pure libertarian message, though reasonably popular, won't find a home in either of the major political parties. Back in November, I had a bit more to say about Ron Paul and libertarianism (warning: I don't think you'll like it).

In any case, Paul has put libertarianism on the map in a way that it has never been before. His candidacy may yet turn out to be a watershed event.

ebadger said...

What "core values" does Mike Huckbaee have that would lead him to take hundreds of thousands in gifts in return for state jobs and other favors? What sort of "core beliefs" would cause Huckabee to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees WHILE HE WAS GOVERNOR? What kind of "core values" lead to such corrupt and unethical behavior?

I trust Mitt Romney's core values over Mike Huckabee's any day of the week. Romney doesn't have this trail of garbage which I think speaks volumes about his "core values".

americaneocon said...

Polls aren't meaningless...it's only a horse race. Campaigns go down to the wire, they matter, and candidate fortunes rise and fall.

It's not good to predict a winner too far in advance, in any case. I've been for McCain all year, no matter that he was almost dead in the water last summer.

Now he's breaking back into the frontrunner position, pulling up just as Huckabee's peaked.

Go McCain!

American Power

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

Ebadger: My reference to Huckabee's core values was limited to the social issues that so many Republicans care about. You're absolutely right that his economic record as Arkansas governor will be used--and is being used--against him in the early primary states. The Grover Norquist types will certainly find Huckabee less appealing than Romney or Giuliani.

Americaneocon: I wouldn't say the polls are meaningless exactly, and I agree that campaigns matter. Indeed, McCain's early decline was evidence of exactly that fact. Your preferred candidate may yet win the GOP nomination, but I'm still not sure he's overcome the immigration issue. But with Huckabee, Giulini, and Romney all in various degrees of trouble, it may not matter. Anyone can win in November, but I do not regard McCain as the Republicans' best candidate to argue for change and beat the Democrats. Nevertheless, I could be wrong.