Years ago, a friend told me a story from her days living in South America. The movie Wayne’s World had come out, and she went to see it. She spoke English, but it was interesting to read the Spanish subtitles.
For instance, early in the film, Wayne says: “Shyeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt!”
The Spanish subtitles read: “Yes, when judgment day comes.”
Needless to say, something was lost in translation.
This, in a nutshell, is Mitt Romney’s biggest problem. A late immigrant to conservatism, Romney doesn’t speak the language naturally. He shares traits with both Al Gore, whose stiffness bordered on the animatronic, and George H. W. Bush, whose contempt for the song-and-dance of elections was transparent. Gore tried to compensate for his inadequacies by shouting, like an ugly American who thinks a foreigner will understand him if he only talks louder. Bush fell back on recitations of patriotic slogans and the generosity of providence that delivered Michael Dukakis as an opponent.
Romney hasn’t cracked the problem yet. He speaks conservatism as a second language, and his mastery of the basic grammar of politics is often spotty as well.
The examples at this point are beyond numerous enough to establish that most toxic of media fixations: a narrative. Journalists like typecasting politicians. Sarah Palin could announce she’s solved pi to the last digit and reconciled all of the inconsistencies in the TV show Lost, and the New York Times would still call her an idiot. Gore could kill a man in a bar fight with a broken pool cue, and he’d still be a cold fish.
Many conservatives argue that Romney’s stiffness is a superficial objection, and that he’s a solid conservative who can appeal to moderates and independents. Other conservatives think Romney’s lack of fluency is a real problem, not because it proves he’s faking his conservatism but because it would put him at a severe disadvantage in the general election in the same way authentic but stiff liberals such as Gore and John Kerry suffered from their inability to comfortably interface with carbon-based life.
And others simply think Romney’s a big faker.
It’s this last group of anti-Romney holdouts I’d like to address. First, let me say: I feel your pain. The Tea Party arose in no small part out of a delayed allergic reaction to the rhetorical and, to a lesser extent, policy problems of George W. Bush’s presidency and the deep resentment that came with having to vote for John McCain in 2008. These disappointments were visited upon the conservative base by something the naysayers (often problematically) call “the Republican establishment.”
After what seems like an eternity under Obama, and with the raised expectations from the Tea Party’s earlier successes, conservatives are extremely reluctant to settle or compromise simply on the say-so of the establishment. For good reasons and bad, Romney seems like a compromise. And no matter how begrudgingly a conservative comes to accept the reality of Romney’s nomination, the diehards immediately proclaim any support for Romney to be proof of membership in the establishment. In fact, it seems like the best definition of a Republican-establishment member these days is simply someone who has made peace with his disappointment prematurely.
Let me try to offer some solace. Even if Romney is a Potemkin conservative (a claim I think has merit but is also exaggerated), there is an instrumental case to be made for him: It is better to have a president who owes you than to have one who claims to own you.
A President Romney would be on a very short leash. A President Gingrich would probably chew through his leash in the first ten minutes of his presidency and wander off into trouble. If elected, Romney must follow through for conservatives and honor his vows to repeal Obamacare, implement Representative Paul Ryan’s agenda, and stay true to his pro-life commitments.
Moreover, Romney is not a man of vision. He is a man of duty and purpose. He was told to “fix” health care in ways Massachusetts would like. He was told to fix the 2002 Olympics. He was told to create Bain Capital. He did it all. The man does his assignments.
In this light, voting for Romney isn’t a betrayal, it’s a transaction. No, that’s not very exciting or reassuring for those who’d sooner see monkeys fly out their nethers than compromise again. But such a bargain may just be necessary before judgment day comes.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.