Friday, February 8, 2008

The Stepford Candidate Drops Out

You can learn a lot about a man by the way he faces defeat. As the list of 2008 presidential candidates dwindles, we have witnessed the difficult and very public death of a number of White House dreams. John Edwards returned to New Orleans to bow out of the Democratic race, taking advantage of his last opportunity to implore the remaining contenders not to forget the suffering of America's most vulnerable citizens. Rudy Giuliani calmly lectured Republicans on the importance of allowing diverse voices, both ideological and demographic, to participate in shaping the party's future. Lesser figures thanked their supporters, pledged their loyalty to the cause, and then quickly moved to the wings.

And then there was Mitt Romney. Having engineered the greatest waste of tens of millions of dollars since Donald Sterling bought the San Diego Clippers and moved them to Los Angeles, Romney finally decided to end his quest for the presidency while he still qualified for President Bush's tax cuts. He announced his decision at the annual rage-fest known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, thus, intentionally or not, upstaging presumptive GOP nominee John McCain's highly anticipated response to his right-wing critics.

But the timing of his speech was far less offensive than its content. Romney, to hear him tell it, has chosen to fall on his sword as a soldier in the war on terrorism. He could not, he said, allow his personal ambitions to "be a part of aiding the surrender to terror". In case anyone missed his point, he specifically called out Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as two candidates who "would retreat, declare defeat, and the consequences of that would be devastating". It was a startlingly graceless conclusion to a stupefyingly inept campaign.

Anyone wishing to understand Mitt Romney's fall from frontrunner to footnote could profitably begin with yesterday's withdrawal statement. Like his debate performances, his television advertisements, and many of his other speeches, Romney exuded passionless mean-spiritedness. As obnoxious as his words may have been, they did not ring true. Nobody really believes that the former governor abandoned his quest for the presidency that the rest of us might avoid the dire consequences of Clinton's or Obama's appeasement. Most candidates readily acknowledge in conceding that the voters have spoken, the opposition has been worthy, and thanks are in order for everyone's hard work. Few have the gall to frame their embrace of the obvious as a selfless and heroic sacrifice worthy of admiration.

Inauthenticity has, of course, been the one constant thread that has tied together Romney's campaign for the better part of a year. From the outset, his biggest challenge was to explain to a skeptical electorate how, in less time than it takes some people to pay off a car loan, he managed to reverse his positions completely on such hot button issues as abortion and gay rights. This answer may have been obvious—he no longer needed to appeal to a liberal Massachusetts constituency—but everyone understood that he could not tell the truth. Still, most Americans are cynical enough that they are willing to accept even an egregious flip-flopper so long as he or she provides an adequately appealing cover story. The masters, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, reversed course with dizzying regularity, but they never caused their supporters to feel cheap in the process. John Kerry, on the other hand, was undone by relatively minor inconsistencies because of his inability to address them with the glib confidence that voters demand.

Mitt Romney, aspiring to the necessary levels of glibness and confidence, failed miserably. The explanation for his convenient conversion from solidly pro-choice to fervently anti-abortion involved some sort of soul searching that followed the revelation that technology now allows for the cloning of human beings. The connection between the two issues was never made entirely clear, and Romney delivered his self-defense in such a bloodless manner that even potential pro-life supporters had a difficult time reconciling themselves to his candidacy.

The casual nastiness of yesterday's address in Washington characterized Romney's entire campaign for president. The hardest core American conservatism loves this sort of thing; their blogs and talk shows teem with angry accusations and clumsy character assassination. Mitt Romney was their man. But during an election in which even Republican candidates like John McCain and Mike Huckabee emphasized their ability to reach across the divides of U.S. politics, Romney simply did not appeal to the independents and moderates who make up a large share of the GOP primary electorate. With Huckabee effectively challenging Romney's hold on his right-wing base, John McCain was able to slip past both of them despite the bitter objections of three-fifths of the party's constituency.

Romney's farewell to the conservatives also smelled of whiny self-indulgence, a trait rarely rewarded by the American electorate. After spending upwards of $50 million to achieve only one victory east of the Mississippi, the former governor felt the need to impress all of us with enormity of the sacrifice he was making by no longer favoring us with his presence. This mirrored perfectly the tone Romney set in any number of debates, indignantly complaining about the way his opponents supposedly mischaracterized his record at the same time he was filling the airwaves with misleading attack ads. Rather than sounding presidential, Romney reminded viewers of the mean little kid who runs tattling to the teacher the first time someone hits back on the playground.

History will, no doubt, record that Mitt Romney's Mormonism contributed to his undoing. That sort of thing is obviously difficult to prove, but there does seem to be some validity to the charge. Christian conservatives, in particular, never warmed to Romney despite a platform that dovetailed almost exactly with theirs. Even when it seemed clear that only Romney could hold off the charge of Senator McCain, a man loathed by many on the religious right, most southern conservatives still cast their lot with the hopeless candidacy of Mike Huckabee. It is difficult to understand this without some consideration of the role of faith: Huckabee is a Baptist preacher, Romney a Latter Day Saint.

Still, even here, part of the fault rests with Romney himself. After spending months resisting calls to address his beliefs publicly, the former Massachusetts governor finally did so this past November at the Bush Library in College Station, Texas. Even at this critical moment, however, Romney would not allow himself to open up with any sincerity. Instead, he talked only briefly about his faith, using the word Mormon just once, devoting the rest of his speech to a surprisingly (even by his standards) nasty confession of his own intolerance on matters of religion, politics, and sexuality. Christian conservatives may have appreciated Romney's obsequiousness, but they never received the necessary understanding of the candidate's spiritual life and inner feelings that they sought. Romney never recovered from this lost opportunity.

The lure of power has long turned politicians into worse people than they actually are. It happened to George H.W. Bush and to Bob Dole. And now it has happened to Mitt Romney. A man who is, by all accounts, both pleasant and competent has left voters with the conviction that he is neither. He is far more accomplished than John McCain and far more sensible and moderate than Mike Huckabee. Despite that premise for a successful campaign, Romney somehow chose to minimize his solid gubernatorial record and instead try to leapfrog the authentically extremist Huckabee to become the most radical right-winger in the race. The clothes did not fit and he never appeared comfortable wearing them.

In the end, Mitt Romney ran a textbook campaign, one that will be cited by pundits and professionals for years to come. Unfortunately, for him, he will be featured in the section of the book entitled, "How to Outspend Your Opponents and Still Fail Utterly and Completely". Goodbye, Mitt. Too bad you'll never have another chance to get it right.

No comments: