The Trouble With Mitt Romney, Part 1 of 5

The first of a five-part series on why Republicans who are serious about winning the White House in 2008 are wasting our time on Mitt Romney.
romney_2008.jpgI’m a conservative in large part because of the vast social/cultural gulf that separates Right and Left, first and foremost on the issue of abortion – and yet, the candidate I’m supporting for the 2008 GOP nomination, Rudy Giuliani, is an avowed pro-choicer who has often been on the wrong side of that gulf.
I also believe that the GOP, for a number of reasons I’ll discuss below, needs to nominate a candidate who has a demonstrated record of management excellence – and yet, my second choice in 2008 is Fred Thompson, a man who has pretty much never managed anything.
You would think that I might be a natural constituency for Mitt Romney, the stronger of the two GOP candidates (the other being Mike Huckabee, more on whom here) who has substantial executive experience and is running as a social conservative. After all, I’ve watched Romney for years (I was in school in Massachusetts and semi-active in GOP campaigns during his 1994 Senate run), and he’s even an alumnus of my law school. So why is Romney no more than my fifth choice for the nomination (behind Rudy, Fred, McCain, and Hunter)? Why do I dread the prospect that he might capture the nomination? Let me explain.
I should start off by saying that there are quite a number of things I like about Romney. He’s obviously smart, articulate and very hard-working. He was a fabulously successful businessman, intimately involved in the development of many new and growing businesses during his career in venture capital and private equity. He ran the Salt Lake City Olympics well, rescuing it from a corruption scandal as well as the challenge of handling the extra security that came from hosting the Games just five months after September 11. He was a good Governor in Massachusetts. He’s obviously a good family man, a man of faith and unquestioned personal integrity. He seems like the kind of guy anyone would be glad to have as a next-door neighbor or a son-in-law. I supported him for the Senate in 1994 (and was appalled at the religious bigotry hurled at him in that campaign by Ted Kennedy), cheered for his campaign for Governor in 2002, and I’d walk over hot coals to elect him in place of my own state’s current Governor, Eliot Spitzer.
I. If We Nominate Him, We’re Gonna Lose
Leaving aside for a second how you rank them, there are basically four things that have to be looked at in examining a presidential candidate:
1. Can he (or she, but we’re talking Romney here) win the general election?
2. Does he stand for good positions and priorities on the issues?
3. How likely is he to actually turn those positions into effective policy, often in the face of a hostile opposition and media and under various pressures from within and without the Party and the Beltway to back down, flip-flop or compromise?
4. How well do we think he can handle unexpected crises and new issues (especially in foreign affairs) beyond what he’s campaigning on?
Regardless of the relative priority you put on the other three, the simple fact is that the best possible potential president in the world is no use if he can’t get elected. And I am quite certain that Mitt Romney, if nominated, won’t get elected. There are a number of reasons for this, not all of them fair, but no less real for being unfair.
A. He’s Not Not-Bush
The first reason is one of the iron rules of politics: after 8 years of the same president – any president, popular or otherwise – voters want change. Partly it’s a sense of getting someone who has a different style and approach and just feels different, and partly it’s the entirely rational assumption that since the job is too big for any one person to do comprehensively, at least exchanging a president with one set of flaws and priorities and values for a different one will ensure that the same things don’t get overlooked or done wrong for another four years.
By nature, this puts the incumbent’s party at a disadvantage, since switching parties is the easiest way to ensure wholesale change – as happened after two-term presidencies in 2000, 1960, 1952, and 1920, and after quasi-two-term presidencies in 1976, 1968, and 1952. And that disadvantage increases when the incumbent is deeply unpopular and is prosecuting a frustrating and unpopular war, as was the case in 1968 and 1952. Make no mistake: that is true today of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.
The challenge for Republicans, then, is to prove to the electorate that the next nominee is not-Bush, and specifically is not-Bush in the ways that people find most troublesome about Bush. (That’s easier said than done when different people are upset about different things, but you can start by focusing on the reasons why people who might potentially vote Republican, and even people who are still happier than not with him, are dissatisfied with Bush).
With George Allen’s campaign having ended before it began, Romney is probably the least not-Bush of any of the candidates. He’s the son of a politician, a businessman running with a fairly short resume in public office, a religious man, a Harvard MBA. Like Bush, he’s led something of a charmed existence – he didn’t come up by the bootstraps, and he didn’t fight in a war. Like Bush, he’s known for his tightly controlled message discipline. There’s even a sense that Romney has been the favored candidate of the Bush family, Jeb in particular (and there’s a reason why Jeb, arguably the GOP’s best possible candidate, can’t run in 2008). See here, here, and here. Worst of all, Romney will be seen as Bush-like without the corresponding virtue (his stubborn constancy) that Bush’s supporters have long most admired, and without Bush’s cultural credibility with Southern Christian conservatives.
To Romney supporters, the comparison seems unfair in two major ways even above and beyond the extent to which it ignores Bush’s own political and policy accomplishments and punishes Romney even for the virtues he shares with Bush. First, unlike Bush, a mediocre oilman who didn’t find consistent success until he led an investor group to buy the Texas Rangers, Romney was a great success in the private business world. (While this is an impressive credential, it turns out to be less of a historically useful one than you might think – successful businessmen, notably Hoover, have been poor presidents; about the only man to really succeed in the presidency and in business was George Washington, and Washington’s success in the whiskey business came only after he left office). Unfortunately for Romney, it may be very difficult for his campaign to convince people that he is selling a kind of experience that’s fundamentally different from Bush’s.
Second, Romney is much more verbally facile than Bush, much less apt to seem cornered and defensive behind a podium or to leave listeners wondering about his gray matter. But Romney has his own issues as a communicator, as I will discuss below and later in this series.
The bottom line? For Americans who are open to conservative principles but tired of George W. Bush, Romney will be a tough sell, much tougher than Giuliani (a New Yorker, a verbal battler, a guy who accomplished a lot as a public-sector leader in the public eye, and who is – unfortunately – not identified with religious conservatives) or McCain (whose war-hero status gives him unique credibility and who has long been known as a “maverick”), and perhaps even tougher than the laconic Southerner, Fred Thompson, with his commanding demeanor, long movie and TV exposure and more comparatively humble origins. That might not be as much of an issue if Romney had credibility in his efforts to differentiate himself from Bush on the Right on issues like spending and immigration. Lacking that, his only substantive way out is to turn against Bush on the Iraq War. And conservatives – like me – who believe that that war effort can’t be separated from the wider war thus have twice the reason to be nervous about Romney.
B. Americans Hate Phonies
This is admittedly subjective, but Jonah Goldberg aptly summarized the way Romney often comes off in public by describing his demeanor as, “What Do I Have to Do To Put You In This BMW Today?”. I’ll discuss the specifics in more detail later, but the broader issue is that Romney seems unconvincing as the conservative he is running as; his calculations seem too close to the surface.
When the race kicked off, with Rudy and McCain as the frontrunners and the second tier filled with unknowns and/or candidates with their own issues with the base (e.g., Huckabee on taxes, Brownback to some extent on immigration), there was an opportunity for a candidate to build a market niche as the sane, electable conservative. Romney, to the credit of his business instincts, jumped on that opportunity like a starving man on a sandwich. The problem is that that posture is just not consistent with Romney’s history of campaigning and governing as a moderate, pragmatic, non-ideological Northeastern Republican, and specifically with numerous stands he has taken in the very recent past. Now, a good businessman, or even a candidate running principally as a competent technocrat, can get away with running on what the public wants today rather than on principles. But Romney is running a fundamentally ideological campaign, and he is doing so all too transparently as a businessman pursuing an underserved market rather than as a true believer.
Romney’s air of slickness and phoniness manifests itself in a number of specific ways I will get into later in this series, but the overall effect is an even more pronounced than usual (for a politician) tendency to leave people feeling like he will say anything to get elected. Democrats have, justly, suffered for that perception in the last two presidential elections, and they are almost certainly nominating a candidate who is legendarily calculating (Bill Clinton, by contrast, was a master at faking sincerity; but Romney, like so many others in politics, lacks Clinton’s talents in this regard and would do well not to try to imitate him). Republicans, having successfully and appropriately attacked Gore and Kerry and most likely Hillary as well on this basis, cannot afford to run a candidate who comes off as a phony.
In Part II: Romney’s relative lack of experience and the implications for Romney as a war leader.

20 thoughts on “The Trouble With Mitt Romney, Part 1 of 5”

  1. You graduated from Harvard Law .. OK .. but what do you know about executive experience? Why should we listen to you more than the many who are choosing Romney ?

  2. If We Nominate Him, We’re Gonna Lose
    You do realize that’s the reason we can’t nominate Rudy Giuliani, unless you’re under the delusion that all of us (27 % according to Rasmussen) that are saying we won’t vote for the guy in the general election are lying.
    I’ll be interested in reading the rest of your posts on Romney, but the only thing they might convince me to do is vote for Fred instead, because it will be a cold day in hell before I vote for a pro-choice, anti-gun, Planned Parenthood contributing non-conservative like Rudy.
    And before you throw the big bad Hillary monster at me, it’s you who ensure her election by supporting Rudy.

  3. Romney’s business acumen is overstated. At Bain, his role was more the salesman than the ‘corporate fixer.’
    In one of the crown jewels of his tenure as CEO of Bain Captial, the firm funded the launch of Staples Co. But as this article explains, the coup to that deal lay more in convincing the already proven entrepreneur Thomas G. Stemberg to partner with Bain than in any advice or guidance provided by Mitt.
    The same skills have guided his nascent political career. In Massachusetts, he sold himself quite convincingly to the voters, strong-arming the sitting GOP governor from the race and handily defeating his Democratic challenger. As a moderate Democrat who voted for him, I can attest to his campaign skills.
    But after less than a year on the job, Mitt grew distracted and was AWOL for the second half of his term — hardly the ‘government fixer’ he is currently describing himself as.

  4. Of the candidates that have a chance of getting the nomination Mitt Romney is the best of them. I think he actually has a better shot at beating Hillary then Giuliani.

  5. I lived in Mass during his tenure as Gov and was left feeling he was too slick and too polished. It’s a vibe he throws off witht he hair, the perfect soundbites, and that Bruce Campbell jawline. Still, I think he would have had a better chance if he had run for Gov in Michigan rather than Mass several years back. If he could deliver a purple swing state like Michigan, his probability of winning a general election would be higher.
    Sadly, I think the Romney campaign is doomed more because he is Mormon than anything else.

  6. The deal-breaker for me is Romney’s opposition to the Cape Wind project. That’s not typical for me, to let one minor issue completely knock an otherwise fairly well-qualified candidate completely off the map.
    I’m thinking maybe that issue exposes Romney for what he really is, somebody who’ll say anything and look damned good saying it, but who’ll be deferential to the old boy network at my expense.
    I may be extrapolating a small matter to justify something else, but what?

  7. 4 years of Hellary Clinton are almost the worst thing I can imagine, but if Rudy is the GOP nominee, he will not get my vote. Two things will hopefully come from his defeat. The GOP will never nominate a complicit baby murderer again and 4 years of Hellary will convince the American people to never vote for a socialist again.

  8. Hillary would be indescribably bad. Guiliani is unacceptable. I’m not convinced yet, but Romney may not be the answer. Thompson won’t effect any change.
    Its time for Ron Paul.
    Don’t laugh. Maybe he won’t be able to get through all of his ideas, but he comes from the right position, and is unwavering. True conservative, true tax cutter, anti-spending, pro-life.
    And while he may be unlikely to get the nomination, he would easily beat Hillary. He could actually steal some Dem voters away.

  9. **he would easily beat Hillary. He could actually steal some Dem voters away.**
    what have you been smoking?

  10. **he would easily beat Hillary. He could actually steal some Dem voters away.**
    what have you been smoking?

    You know what – I think there’s a greater shot that the Devil Rays will win the World Series next year than that Ron Paul will ever win the nomination, let alone the general election, but there’s a little bit to this. He is to the left of Hillary when it comes to the war, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he could steal away more than a few anti-war Democrats. Throw in the pro-life Republicans upset with a Rudy nomination, and he could get a decent share of the vote.
    But he’s not winning the election.

  11. Forget Ron Paul. Back to Romney. All the columns, all the analysis can’t change one simple impression: he’s creepy. really looks it, the hair, the jaw. The whole package.

  12. Daryl:
    As a Mormon conservative who respects Romney in many aspects and would ostensibly be an automatic vote in his back pocket, I have the same impression. I don’t think I’d vote for him in the primary, but I have serious misgivings about Rudy, as well.
    All I know is that I will vote for whomever wins the Republican nomination. If I can’t get someone who will represent my moral values, I’d rather that they didn’t destroy my finances, as well. I can protect my family from the federal government’s moral influence. I can’t protect my paycheck from a runaway federal government.

  13. As a Moderate/Reagan Democrat, I would be 1,000 times more likely to vote for Rudy than Mitt. The twice re-elected mayor accomplished great things in New York and left a lasting mark on that city.
    Mitt on the other hand, passed through the governor’s office in Massachusetts the way some of us joined extra-curricular activities in high school after our guidance counselor told us we had to if we wanted to get into a good college. We signed up and went to the meetings, but we didn’t particularly care about what happened at those meetings.
    And Rudy has shown integrity in standing by his positions on abortion, immigration and gay rights — though he may have re-packaged them a bit. Mitt on the other hand tried to turn himself into Tom Delay over night. What a joke.
    My one concern about Rudy is that he may be too much of a hot head on foreign policy matters. His fiery, take no guff approach is a huge strength in most executive duties, but I don’t think the world wants another US President telling them our way or the highway.
    And coming out of New York, I also wonder if he assumes Israel can do no wrong and that all Muslims are assumed terrorists. Another trait this world does not need in a US President. I am sure many readers of this great website would cheer on such an approch — but not only is such an approach unjust and immoral — it is also terrible foreign policy that will always come back to bite us. We can’t stay at war against a quarter of the world’s population in this day and age without them getting in a few good shots on us.

  14. Patrick, playing the Israel card is simply sleight of hand. If you want to know what will happen in the future, look too the past. Our foreign policy is supposed to be based on the best interests of the United States, and I’m probably right in assuming that defending democracies over dictatorships is in our best interest.
    And assuming all Muslims are terrorists is plain dumb, any more than assuming that all blond haired blue eyed guys are like Timothy McVeigh. But that doesn’t mean we have to bend over backwards any more than we have. Want a case in point? Whose asses were on the line in defending the Muslims of Bosnia? Didn’t see the Saudis move a muscle, not even to lift a wallet. NOt the Iragis, not the Iranians, who then? Oh, yeah, the Americans. We got thanked big time for that one didn’t we? Tell that to the dead and wounded soldiers who went there, because our foreign policy said do what was right and moral, not go with the power.

  15. RE: “I’m probably right in assuming that defending democracies … is in our best interest. ”
    Like Hamas? See its not that simple. And I am not saying we should abandon Israel; I just think we should recognize legitimate grievances many Muslims have against that country.
    The alternative is to continue to assume every Muslim in the Middle East is a terrorist, whether they live in Palestine, Iran or Iraq. They have no rights and if the can’t prove their innocence, we send them to the likes of Guatanomo Bay, Abu Graib or worse – an unknown, unacknowledged black site.
    And for the record, I don’t think the US suffered any casualties in the Bosnian intervention. That was back when the US actually planned their missions before undertaking them.

  16. Its funny I had this same conversation about Guiliani: that he would be too much like Bush.
    He’s a New Yorker like Bush is a Texan. People don’t like the NY thing, people don’t like the Texan thing, unless its their thing. Neither has the charisma to cut across this issue.
    He’s a mixed bag on conservative issues (Bush’s big government entitlements are a big reason conservatives like me don’t like him.)
    He’s strong on the war, but he will ping all the same nerves about illiberal enforcement of the war. Guiliani has the NY’er “I’ll punch you in the face” attitude that will scare people in the same way Bush’s “I’ll shot first” Cowboy attitude does.
    In the general election, let’s think about the category of people that don’t trust Hillary on the war, but would vote for her if opposed by a socially conservative and strong national defense opponent. Put simply, it doesn’t exist. If social issues make you willing to vote for Hillary over the Republican candidate, Guiliani is not bringing you back into the fold. Period.

  17. Another comment I have is that Crank’s discussion of Romney has always seemed to me to wonder between personal dislike of Romney and a Bill James-esque “No comment” on Bagwell.
    It’s good to hear the reasing behind his dislike of candidate Romney, but I still feel this more personal than business. For example most conservatives tend to predicate criticism of candidates with the “he’ll be a much better option than HRC” type reasoning. I’ve wondered if any of the following were true:
    1. Crank is personally connected to the Rudy effort (friends etc. who are close to Guiliani campaign and/or likely staffers for his administration) – which given his position, schooling, and NYC locale is not unreasonable.
    2. Overly sympathetic to RG because of his emotional connection to 9/11 (which in my mind was and is over rated.)
    3. Something in the Romney biography (Mormon thing, the flip on abortion, etc) makes him personally disagreeable.
    On number 3, I think this jives with Crank’s assessment of MR as a “phony”. Anyways I fell the need to point out this is not meant as a personal attack on Crank, rather these were my curiousities when reading his previous posts. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series to help me work through some of my assumptions.

  18. I don’t deny that I have a certain emotional bond with Rudy, as I explained in my “why I’m with Rudy” post. But I really didn’t go into this race disliking Mitt; I’d supported him in the past, and started off just thinking he didn’t have the experience to head the ticket, that he was too much of a September 10 sort of candidate. It’s prolonged exposure to Romney’s presidential campaign that has poisoned my view of him.

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