It might have been Mitt Romney’s most revealing moment in all the Republican debates. Badgered by Texas governor Rick Perry, who was continually interrupting him, Romney appealed to CNN moderator Anderson Cooper to reassert the rules of the debate: “Anderson?”
That one-word plaint could stand for all of Romney’s straight-arrowness. It is a virtue and a curse. “Scandal” and “Romney” are two words you expect never to have to see in a sentence together. He’s every bit as upstanding as you would expect from a former Mormon bishop, a father of five and grandfather of 16.
#ad#Romney is a familiar type. We’ve all known the guy who sits in the front of the classroom and raises his hand to answer every question. We might admire him, or envy him, but we probably don’t like him. In 2008, the other Republican candidates hated Romney, and you got the feeling it was partly because he was richer and better-looking than they were. He has the same problem that the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli identified in his counterpart William Gladstone — “he had not a single redeeming defect.”
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the technical proficiency Romney has exhibited during the debates. There is no question for which he doesn’t have a ready, sometimes sophisticated answer. Whenever challenged — especially by Perry — he almost always bests his opponent. He’s like a boxer with a couple of extra inches on his reach compared with everyone else. Even when another candidate is talking, he’s perfected a look of patient, benign attentiveness.
What’s missing, as usual with Romney, is a sense of warmth and heartfelt conviction. When Bill Clinton was confronted by someone with a sympathetic story, his reflex was to go in for a hug. Romney’s reflex is to go in for a crisp explanation of whatever is his relevant policy position, delivered smoothly and cogently, if distantly. It’s as if he sees people as inputs into his hard drive, from which he reliably downloads the most appropriate intellectual output.
Romney talks of how he loves data, and his ability to master them is one of his foremost strengths. Data don’t move people, though. The difference between Herman Cain, who has generated spontaneous excitement, and Mitt Romney is captured in their economic plans. Cain’s depends on three simple numbers, 9-9-9, that have captured the imagination of a slice of the Republican electorate. In what he admits is almost a self-parody, Romney has a 59-point plan that hasn’t made an impression on anyone. Cain’s fearlessly bold plan is badly flawed and would almost certainly blow up in a general election. Romney’s plan is carefully crafted for maximum survivability.
Then again, everything feels carefully crafted in the Romney campaign. He’s spent five years honing his positions down to what’s appetizing enough for Republicans yet inoffensive to persuadable general-election voters. The exception is his Massachusetts health-care reform, his signature initiative that is structurally indistinguishable from Obamacare and clangingly crosswise with the philosophical center of gravity of the GOP. Although Romney can cite differences between his plan and Obama’s, they don’t always bear close examination. Sure, to cite one, Romney didn’t cut Medicare to pay for his reform — but governors can’t cut Medicare!
Romney has a likability and trust gap. It’s one reason he’s been near the top of the field all year yet has never opened up the kind of lead traditionally associated with frontrunners. If Republican voters conclude there’s no one else in the field who is plausible as president or a general-election candidate, Romney will win, but it will be an act of calculation rather than passion. A former management consultant who couldn’t rabble-rouse if he wanted to, Romney would be a most unusual vessel for a party overflowing with populist enthusiasms.
Romney can impress, but he doesn’t naturally inspire or connect. That leaves an opening for others, even as he executes nearly flawlessly.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. ©2011 King Features Syndicate