Mitt Romney: A Perfectly Manufactured Nothing?

Is there any there there?

Over at National Review, Mark Steyn lays into the Romney campaign, and more importantly, Romney the candidate:

The nature of this peculiar primary season — the reason it seems at odds with both the 2009-2010 political narrative and the seriousness of the times — was determined by Mitt Romney. Even if you don’t mind Romneycare, or the abortion flip-flop, or any of the rest, there’s a more basic problem: He’s not a natural campaigner, and on the stump he instinctively recoils from any personal connection with the voters. So, in compensation, he’s bought himself a bunch of A-list advisers and a lavish campaign. He is, as he likes to say, the only candidate with experience in the private sector. So he knows better than to throw his money away, right? But that’s just what he’s doing, in big ways and small.

Small: It’s a good idea to get that telegenic gal (daughter-in-law?) to stand behind him during the concession speech, but one of those expensive consultants ought to tell her not to look so bored and glassy-eyed as the stiff guy grinds through the same-old-same-old for the umpteenth time. To those watching on TV last night, she looked like we felt.

Big: Why is the stump speech so awful? “I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.” Mitt paid some guy to write this insipid pap. And he paid others to approve it. Not only is it bland and generic, it’s lethal to him in a way that it wouldn’t be to Gingrich or Perry or Bachmann or Paul because it plays to his caricature — as a synthetic, stage-managed hollow man of no fixed beliefs. And, when Ron Paul’s going on about “fiat money” and Newt’s brimming with specifics on everything (he was great on the pipeline last night), Mitt’s generalities are awfully condescending: The finely calibrated inoffensiveness is kind of offensive.

And what’s with the wind up? The “shining city on the hill”? That’s another guy’s line — a guy with whom you have had hitherto little connection other than your public repudiation of him back in the Nineties. Can’t any of his highly paid honchos write him a campaign slogan that’s his own and doesn’t sound in his mouth so cheesily anodyne, as if some guy ran a focus-group and this phrase came up with the lowest negatives?

That highlighted portion of Romney’s stump speech became the subject of much derision this morning on Morning Joe, as Joe Scarborough read it aloud off of his iPhone. It doesn’t sound like something a guy whose been running for President since 2007 would say, it sounds like something Stephen Colbert would say while in character. In fact, it sounds like it came from his 2007 book  I Am America And So Can You. It’s the kind of line you can maybe expect out of a Herman Cain, or a Michele Bachmann, or a Rick Perry. This is Mitt Romney, though, the guy who dozens of Republican elected officials are lining up behind as the man they say is best able to take on Barack Obama and lead the country. The guy who Republicans were being told all through 2011 was the “serious” candidate, in contrast to lightweights like Bachmann, Cain, and Perry. And this is the kind of speech he pays people to write for him? Is it really any wonder that he is finding it hard to compete with someone who is capable of exciting the base, who doesn’t stick to a script when he speaks, and who actually seems to be emotionally engaged in this campaign?

There’s a lot that can be said about Newt Gingrich’s many flaws and what his rise says about the state of the Republican Party. I’ve said many things on both topics myself, and I think it’s fairly clear that I’m no fan of Gingrich and honestly don’t think he belongs in the Oval Office. However, there’s an old saying that you can’t beat something with nothing and that seems to be the situation that the GOP race is in right now. Mitt Romney has a lot to recommend to him as a candidate. He’s got the resume, the ability to appeal to the independents that are likely to be turned off by a bomb thrower like Gingrich, if you were going to call Central Casting and ask for a guy who “looks Presidential,” they’d send you a guy who looks like Mitt Romney. But it seems like that where it ends. Romney seems to lack not just the passion that many analysts say the GOP is looking for, but any passion at all. His efforts to connect to the average voter on the stump usually come across as looking pretty dorky (someone needs to tell him to stop wearing jeans). And, even after running for President for nearly five years he doesn’t seem to be able to communicate the reason why he wants the job.

Mitt Romney has a great campaign organization, a lot of money, and the backing of some of the biggest names in the Republican Party. What he seems to be lacking, though, is anything resembling substance, and that may be the reason he finds himself threatened by an irresponsible, amoral, big government conservative who is likely to lead the GOP down the road to ruin if he wins the nomination. Romney can still win this nomination, but if he’s going to but this Gingrich challenge to rest he will need to show voters that he’s something more than a perfectly packaged real-life version of Bill McKay. Otherwise, he could find himself eating Newt Gingrich’s dust as the former Speaker heads off to November to assist in the re-election of Barack Obama.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. ed says:

    Right, how does Romney differ substantially (insubstantially?) from, say, George Bush, Jr., whose chief selling point was that his father had been President. I guess Bush dropped his g’s pretty good. So there’s that.

  2. Fiona says:

    (someone needs to tell him to stop wearing jeans)

    OMG yes! He looks so wrong in them. At the very least, he should stop wearing them with dress shirts.

    My sister has commented that Romney is only running for president so he can cross it off of his bucket list. Passionless is almost an understatement when it comes to describing him. Now that the sheen of inevitability has worn off, he might have a tough time knocking Gingrich out of the race. Gingrich embodies so much of the anger and resentment that drives today’s GOP. He doesn’t have any substance either, but he has the mindset of embittered old white guy down pat.

  3. MBunge says:

    I think it’s important to remember that the only reason Romney was the front-runner this time around is that conservatives rallied to him in 2008 to stop John McCain. And the only reason that happened is because those conservatives so thoroughly demonized and marginalized McCain in 2000 to help George W. Bush that even they couldn’t flip that flop and embrace him.


  4. michael reynolds says:

    You can’t do much about core personality, and that’s what voters are rejecting.

    Romney’s a hollow man doing whatever he thinks it takes to gain power. And unfortunately for him, he doesn’t hide his emptiness or his dickishness or his sense of entitlement well.

    He doesn’t need a better stump speech, he needs to stop being what he is, and the more he tries the more he show us what he is. He’s trapped in the black hole of his own phoniness.

  5. We’ve seen numerous polls indicating that “Unamed Republican” routinely outperforms all of the specific Republican candidates.

    Obviously Romney’s strategy is to become the actual physical embodiment of Unnamed Republican. His avatar on earth, if you will.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    I’d disagree on whether Romney has substance. He has quite a lot of substance (immeasurably more than GWB for godsake). The problem is that it’s not a substance that appeals to the base of the GOP who are not awfully concerned with the business of managing government; and it has major potential drawbacks with the wider electorate because of its connection to a widely discredited financial system. The base of GOP want someone who they can see taking the fight to Obama. They see Boehner and McConnell as relatively colorless and invisible and not particularly effective at winning victories over the white house with victory laps to follow. In fact they probably can figure out that by and large Obama has out maneuvered congressional Republicans. For all his faults Gingrich can do this in their minds. No matter that on those occasions when he’s done it the results have fairly disastrous (shutdowns, impeachment) for the GOP. They can’t wait to see Gingrich v Obama in the heavyweight final debates because they think Gingrich is going to wipe the floor with him because after all the Kenyan can’t speak without a teleprompter. Where they get this strange idea is a bit of mystery but nevertheless it’s an article of faith. So Gingrich is appealing to raw emotion rather than collective reason and it maybe enough to overcome the rather bland, even if more substantive in real terms, Romney.

  7. Modulo Myself says:


    I would say that Bush II was both liked and envied. Neither of which has ever happened to Mitt Romney, apparently. I don’t think there is a single voter he covets who could imagine ever wanting to be Mitt Romney, or having what he has.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    That is pretty great. “The Avatar of the Unamed Republican.”

  9. Hey Norm says:

    Mittsey lost a Senate race…managed to win a Gubernatorial race – but knew he didn’t stand a chance of winning a second term…and lost the ’08 Republican Primary race to a guy that got beat by over 7% and gave away 9 states to the Democrats. So far this time he has only won one contest in what is essentially a home state. And yet for some reason people think he can win? Track records matter because they are an indicator of future performance…and an abysmal track record indicates a loser.

  10. Eric says:

    I think this goes back to Joyner’s piece. Romney obviously proved that he can hold executive office and do a fairly decent job at it, but he’s campaigning right now and he doesn’t seem to be engaged in it. He has been coasting for the past several months with his popularity still being the same.

    I think that he just wants the primary season to end so he can focus all his strength on the general election. That would be a downfall for him, though. The longer the primaries are, the weaker he gets. Even if Gingrich’s win in South Carolina is a fluke, it makes the primaries longer and it gives the momentum to Gingrich (as it was stated in the new Florida polls). This is Romney’s primary to lose.

  11. Brummagem Joe says:


    If Romney loses FL to Gingrich by the sort of margin that Silver in the NYT is suggesting then he’s probably blown it.

  12. ed says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    How about, you know, substantively?

    George Bush, Jr., also made the decision to pray to the correct God, in terms of vote-collecting, I mean.

  13. Sam Penrose says:

    I’m not so sure this isn’t an improvement over the typical candidacy. Seriously. In the USA (1) Congress writes the laws (2) the voters believe they express their will by choosing a president. With the important exception of starting (not ending) military conflict, the actions of the next President will be 98% determined by his party affiliation, the makeup of Congress, and a few big facts like the state of the economy, maybe a terrorist attack, etc.

    Who CARES what Romney is “really” like. He’s an excellent manager who will represent the Republican party. That’s it.

  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Sam Penrose:

    Actually as a practical matter the executive has infinitely more power than the legislature. Who is president and his worldview is very important.

  15. Jr says:

    Romney being an empty suit is exactly why I don’t think he would be very strong against Obama in November. He polls well because he is the closets thing to a “generic” Republican, but the more people hear about him the less they like.

  16. JKB says:

    Worse thing about Romney is he’s the establishment candidate. He has the “best and brightest” of the Republican operators. You know, the ones who couldn’t run McCain’s campaign which would have died early had Sarah Palin not energized the country.

    So here’s hoping there are some Republican operatives, perhaps on the outs with the DC establishment who can run an effective campaign. Perhaps the Tea Party will have to field the candidate that America wants. Lord knows, the Republicans, Gingrich included, aren’t up to defending the capitalism.

    As Dr. Sanity posted:

    I have to ask again with some exasperation, why aren’t Republicans making a case for the essential morality of capitalism? An entire cultural war is being fought against capitalism, and instead of making the case for why economic freedom and the free market is the best possible means to economic betterment for ALL PEOPLE, regardless of whether they are rich or poor; black or white; gay or straight; male or female or along any other divide the progressives can think of.

    Instead, Republicans are busy legitimizing the narrative of the Democrats and their progressive left leaders. This is sheer stupidity and represents (sadly) how ubiquitous such narratives (such as “the 1% vs the 99%”) have become.

    I realize many here don’t like capitalism but strangle the golden goose and all you get out of it is sh..

  17. Tsar Nicholas says:

    It’s not that Romney’s a nothing. There is something there. After all the man did run a very successful private equity company, he ran a very successful olympics games and he was a governor.

    Thing is, we’re seeing Romney within the framework of the national GOP primary selectorate and of the right-wing commentariat. Those are absurd demographics. Those people are angry. Irrational. Uninformed. Impatient. They’re in a cocoon. They’re spoiled. Somewhat deranged. They don’t get out much. Literally. they’re overly religious. In large part they’re not the sharpest tools in the shed.

    Romney can’t be personable because his actual personality doesn’t work with the right wing. Romney’s not a bomb thrower. He’s not really a conservative. He’s a moderate-to-liberal Republican. When your target audience is foaming at the mouth right-wing crazy or voting solely based upon religion it’s tough to maintain an even keel. Romney has no choice but to pretend to be something he’s not. Of course that’s quite awkward and uncomfortable for him. It shows.

  18. David M says:

    @JKB: That free market you speak so highly of doesn’t function worth anything without some regulation. Also, Bain Capital != Capitalism, and there is no reason to assume criticism of one is criticism of both.

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    It’s not that Romney’s a nothing. There is something there. After all the man did run a very successful private equity company

    You say that like it’s a good thing, not a character flaw that disqualifies him from the presidency.

  19. The definition of “insider” is now “party supported” and Newt’s credit as “outsider” is based on “party disrespect.” Amazing. It isn’t connected to center or left at all.

    Is the party really eating itself?

  20. James says:

    @JKB: That was an incredibly stupid point made by an even more stupid quote. No one in American governemnt is arguing against a free market system. The only question is how savage should be allow the market to be.

  21. DRS says:

    You know what really got me about the dumb story of the dog messing his litter on top of the car and having to be hosed down? It was apparently cited as an example of how the Mittster handled an unexpected situation.

    And I remember thinking: huh? They couldn’t come up with an example from the Olympics (a friend of mine was involved in a rather junior capacity in the Sydney Olympics years ago – he said that if there weren’t 10 screw-ups an hour it was a good day)? Or something that came up from when he was governor? Or during his early years in business?

    This man wants credit for being strong and yet doesn’t have the balls to stand on his experience. And we’re supposed to respect that. Amazing.

  22. Matt says:

    Ironic that a writer for “Outside The Beltway” is a lawyer from Northern Virginia.

  23. @JKB:

    Step back and think it through. One of these two guys served in Washington for decades, suffered a $300,000 fine for ethics violations, retired, and ranked up $30 million dollars lobbying in the beltway.

    Thirty. Million. Dollars.

    In. Washington.

    But that’s the guy you think is an “outsider,” just because everyone in Washington who knows him, hates him. Newt says “look, they hate me! I must be an outsider.” You fall for it.

    Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. Sometimes he’s just another enemy.

    On the other hand, you’ve got a guy who (IIRC) never served a day in Washington in his life. He’s the “insider.” Why? Because the RNC thinks they can get him elected, that’s why.

    It seems amazing.

    But … don’t worry. Since a moderate is telling you this, it must be all wrong. Since I think Gingrich is worse than Romney, that very criticism must make Gingrich better! That’s the ticket.

  24. Hey Norm says:

    JKB quotes Dr. Sanity??? That woman is the biggest nutjob on the entirety of the Internet…she makes Orly Taitz look normal.

  25. michael reynolds says:

    This isn’t about accomplishment or inside/outside, it’s about emotion. Two emotions to be specific: Rage and Love.

    The GOP’s dominant emotion is rage. It’s almost understandable, they’re a party of old, narrow, out-of-touch white people. Their privileges are evaporating. They’ve lost their easy dominance. We have a black president, gays are getting married, atheists are getting uppity, it;s koyaanisqatsi for these people.

    And the other emotion, love, is what Romney can’t generate. It’s hard to recall now, but some people loved George W. Bush, and many loved McCain. No one loves Romney, so he has no hardcore of true believers — just a bunch of fair weather friends who are with him if he looks like a winner.

    Gingrich embodies rage. Romney gets no love.

  26. An Interested Party says:

    What a pickle Republican voters are in…vote for the GOP version of Mondale/Dukakis/Kerry or vote for the sleazebag…I guess the only thing to do is just stay home as John Burgess suggested he would do on another thread…

  27. @michael reynolds:

    I get that, just pushing for a little self-awareness.

  28. Drew says:

    Fascinating to watch commenters harp on phoniness….while supporting Obama. A quintessential Illinois political phony.

  29. MBunge says:

    @john personna: “On the other hand, you’ve got a guy who (IIRC) never served a day in Washington in his life. He’s the “insider.” Why?”

    Sweet sassy molassy, you’re not so thick-headed that you actually think “insider” vs. “outsider” is a matter of geographic location, do you?


  30. grumpy realist says:

    @Drew: Why do you call him a phony? Please back up your accusations with data, please. And don’t quote anything that has not been adequately documented by published sources. (And no, Orly Taitz’s blog isn’t an “expert source”)

  31. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @john personna:

    Is the party really eating itself?

    As a former Republican, I can say that I certainly hope so.

  32. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @MBunge: No, I don’t think he does, but it could refer to metaphysical location and his comments would still apply.

    Sweet sassy molassy, indeed!

  33. steve says:

    If Mitt just ran as what I think he probably is, a moderate and a competent executive able to reach effective compromise, I would probably vote for him. When he joins the bomb Iran, Israel first, cut taxes for the wealthy and repeal Obamacare (with no replacement plan), I have a hard time separating out from the rest of the weak bunch.


  34. Jenos Idanian says:

    I’ve always found it interesting how many Obama supporters use attacks that actually apply even more to Obama. Sarah Palin was bashed for “inexperience,” for example. Here, the supporters of a “Constitutional scholar” who never made full professor and never published a single scholarly article, a man who spent years and years as a legislator with no real notable accomplishments and sealed records and a history of votign “present,” a man who never held any real position of authority before election, a man whose two best-selling books were aspirational (and admittedly fictionalized) books about himself, are calling Mitt Romney — a guy with a solid record of significant accomplishments — as “manufactured.”

    Obama came right out of Central Casting for “first liberal black president,” yet Romney — wildly successful businessman, former Republican governor of the most liberal state, and savior of a failing Olympics, just to name three — is “manufactured?” There are plenty of reasons to slam Romney, but this particular line of attack fits Obama far more accurately.

  35. Rick DeMent says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Sarah Palin was bashed for “inexperience,” …

    Ah no, she was banish for being stupid.

  36. Rob in CT says:

    Mitt Romney has executive experience that directly contradicts just about everything he is now saying.

    If the man ran on his record, this charge would have no weight. Instead, he’s spent the last ~4 years pretending to not be the guy he, well, was. Also, lots of folks expect that if/when he secures the GOP nomination, he will immediately pivot back to “moderate Mitt.”

    THAT makes him look like a “manufactured nothing.”

    And you may want to notice that the charge is coming the Right as well as the Left (more from the Right, in my view).

  37. Rob in CT says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    To be fair, it went like this:

    The Right: Obama is inexperienced. Choose McCain – he’s experienced.
    The Left: Eh.

    The Right: vote McCain/Palin!
    The Left: Wait a minute! I thought you said experience was important? And now you go pick Sarah Palin?
    The Right: Starbursts!
    The Left: Geez, she’s really dumb. Good at throwing red meat, though.

    That’s how it went. So yes, the Left deployed the inexperience charge against Palin, only to highlight the fact that, immediately prior to picking Palin to run for VP, the Right had been attacking Obama for inexperience.

    That was secondary to her idiocy, though, for sure.

  38. @Drew:

    Wait a second Drew. You know how many times you’ve gone hard at Freddie and Fannie. Harder than I, though I don’t like them much.

    Don’t tell me this was a comment in support of the guy who took $1.6M to lobby for them!

  39. @MBunge:

    Yeah, in the case of Washington politics I think it does. A lot.

  40. @Jenos Idanian:

    lolz. As someone once said “but, but, but, …. Obama!”

  41. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Rob in CT: Let’s re-fight 2008 again, shall we?

    Top of the ticket, experience: Naval officer with executive experience (squadron commander) vs. career legislator who specialized in not making waves while engaging in shameless self-promotion.

    Bottom of the ticket: first-term highly successful governor vs. career Senator who piled up a huge record of lying, plagiarism, stupidity, and just being plain wrong on nearly every issue.

    It seems that the most important issue to liberals is whatever might make their candidate look better. And it seems they’re utterly immune to the self-awareness to recognize that the attacks more often apply to their own candidate than their opponent.

  42. Rob in CT says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    You’re the one who brought up Palin.

    Did you notice she quit her job mid-term and is now in the infotainment industry? Yeah, the liberals were TOTALLY WRONG about her, weren’t they?

    She managed to make Joe Biden look good. As often is the case, the Democrat’s strength was largely due to Republican weakness.

    McCain *was* more experienced. That was a point in his favor. It just wasn’t enough. If you want to blame his loss on anyone, I suggest you blame George W. Bush and various other Republicans involved with that disasterous administration.

    I’d have happily voted for McCain in 2000. Unfortunately, by 2008, that McCain wasn’t running (he had tacked to the Right) and we’d just suffered 6-8 years of poor governance by the GOP.

  43. @Jenos Idanian:

    Be honest, would McCain/Lieberman have actually lost your vote? While gaining in the middle?

    The right’s reaction to McCain’s attempt at triangulation was more about “feel good” than votes, I’m afraid.

    You don’t want moderates to vote for your candidates, do you?

  44. Nikki says:

    When he joins the bomb Iran, Israel first, cut taxes for the wealthy and repeal Obamacare (with no replacement plan), I have a hard time separating out from the rest of the weak bunch.

    Problem for Romney is that he cannot win the nomination without joining the “the bomb Iran, Israel first, cut taxes for the wealthy and repeal Obamacare (with no replacement plan).” Hence, for the election, he will be unable to flip-flop his way to the center without alienating his base.

  45. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Rob in CT: Hm… I’m sensing a pattern here.

    Palin: about 20 ethics charges filed against her. All but two dismissed. One settled with a “no contest” kind of deal where the cost of paying the potential fine dwarfed the legal bills, one left unresolved (whether she could have a legal defense fund) when she resigned. No findings of wrongdoing.

    Gingrich: Over 80 ethics violations charged. All but one dismissed, the last one referred to the IRS — which ruled he did absolutely nothing wrong.

    Both resigned in the face of unending false allegations from the left that kept them from carrying out their duties in office. Charges that had no merit, but still cost them time and money to defend against.

    What a great accomplishment to boast of. You must be so proud, Rob.

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