At the 757th Republican debate over the weekend, Newt Gingrich zinged Mitt Romney for attempting to portray his decision to forego a reelection race in Massachusetts as reluctance to become a lifetime politician. “Can we drop a bit of the pious baloney?” Gingrich taunted, observing that Romney’s poll numbers were dropping in 2006, and that he was eyeing a presidential run (which he did indeed make in 2008).
True enough. Romney’s explanation was transparently self-serving and contrived. That said, Romney cannot hope to compete in the phoniness league Newt Gingrich belongs to. At that level of play, candidates dare to suggest that they take huge retainers from Freddie Mac in order to offer advice “as a historian,” and commit serial adultery because “partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country . . . I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”
Still, most of the time, when Gingrich speaks, his audience has a sense that they are watching a thoughtful person spontaneously expressing his views. When Rick Santorum speaks, the listener doesn’t wonder whether he’s checked the reply with his pollster. With Romney, the feeling is more like pressing the buttons on a jukebox. Ask about defense and the “military second to none” disc slides into the player. Ask about the economy and the “businessman” record slips into the slot. Such competence is not easily attained, but the effect over time can be numbing, rather than inspiring.
Gingrich and Santorum have advanced the process by highlighting this vulnerability of Romney’s. Like Thomas E. Dewey, who was nominated for president in 1944 and 1948, Romney seems to be the candidate from central casting. Dewey, commented Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “looks like the little man on the wedding cake.”
It isn’t that Romney lacks the ability to think on his feet. When reporter Andy Hiller asked a series of questions on gay rights culminating in what he clearly imagined was a gotcha — “When is the last time you stood up and spoke out for increasing gay rights?” — Romney parried with “Right now.”
But something is causing Romney to play it too safe. Without straying too far into armchair psychoanalysis, it is worth examining the experience of the candidate’s father, George Romney.
A popular three-term governor of Michigan, the elder Romney was the odds-on favorite to challenge then-president Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Romney had proved himself a success in business when he took over the failing American Motors company and turned it into a profitable company. His margins of victory in Michigan were commanding, and included 30 percent of the black vote. Handsome, honest, and unpretentious, he was admired throughout the Republican party and the nation. In 1966, a national poll found that 54 percent of respondents preferred him to the sitting president.