Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in Washington,” he says in announcing his Senate campaign. Maybe.
There’s always been something unstable about Mitt Romney’s political identity. In fact, Romney could give Trump a run for his money on political inconstancy. In his first run for the Senate, against Ted Kennedy, he tried to stake out a position on abortion to Kennedy’s left. Then Romney debuted his “severely conservative” persona in 2012. The political transformations reflect Trump’s own: Trump used to defend late-term abortions but started talking about the violence of abortion when political expediency demanded he do so.
Conservatives have also been on and off again when it comes to Romney. Back in 2006, a man wearing a dolphin suit would stalk Romney around CPAC. Flipper was popular with conservatives then. But two years later at the same convention, Laura Ingraham and other conservatives despaired at the capitulation to John McCain when Romney announced his exit from the race.
Some political observers are hoping that Romney will save the Republican party from Trumpism. He was the man who tried to torpedo Trump’s 2016 campaign, calling Trump “a con man” and a “fake.” Romney has a real fortune and real grace in his deportment. Others point out that it was Romney who helped to legitimate Trump by dropping everything but his wife to receive Trump’s endorsement in 2012.
What is constant about Romney is his civic-minded desire to serve in office and his confidence that he can do a good job. He is probably right that he would do well in office. He is wholesome, efficient, industrious, and faithful. But he combines all this with a barely concealed panic; he has no idea how to make a majority of voters choose him for the job. And so each new persona seems like a new attempt to condescend to us.
Romney’s severe disability is found in the Constitution: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” Romney looks, acts, and thinks like an American noble, one who tragically cannot be made into a duke or earl. If America gave out titles, surely the Romneys would have received one or more by now. In such a world, Romney’s sense of duty, and the sense of deference in the public to excellence like his, would have provided him with suitable offices. Romney belongs to an extremely exclusive Mormon subculture of successful families. These are the men who built Huntsman Chemical, Marriott International, JetBlue Airways. Like the ancient families with titles, Romney is subject to confusingly personal feuds within this group — namely with Jon Huntsman Jr. — that have no real political content.
Donald Trump has most of Romney’s political faults, and many more of his own. But unlike Romney, Trump has a fundamentally democratic personality and bearing. Months after the death of Princess Diana, Howard Stern asked Trump if he could have “nailed her.” Trump gave the quintessentially democratic answer: “I think I could have.”
Romney is afraid of being genuinely himself, an American Mormon scion who outdid Dad on the wealth front and wanted to build a bigger political legacy as well.
Trump’s oblivious and crass confidence is part of what made him electorally viable in America. Americans grade integrity on a curve, and they assess Trump as a genuine liar and scoundrel — with a heavy emphasis on the genuine part. Romney’s presidential aspirations suffered from bad timing. But they also suffered from his fear of being genuinely himself, an American Mormon scion who outdid Dad on the wealth front and wanted to build a bigger political legacy as well. A man who has put maximum effort into building a successful career and a huge, loving family.
He should drop “Mr Utah” and just be himself, a man who excels at every endeavor other than being a regular Joe.