Mitt Romney, Republican Frontrunner, Cipher

Mitt Romney starts his 2012 run as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. But, in reinventing himself yet again, the "authenticity" issue that troubled many of us in 2008 looms again.

Mitt Romney at Daytona 500

Mitt Romney at the Daytona 500 NASCAR race in Florida. Voters question his authenticity in part because he has remade himself before each campaign. (Lynne Sladky, Associated Press / February 20, 2011)

Mitt Romney starts his 2012 run as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. But, in reinventing himself yet again, the “authenticity” issue that troubled many of us in 2008 looms again.

Paul West for LAT (“A whole new Romney for 2012 presidential run“):

Defying his reputation as a 1950s square, the new, more casual Mitt Romney is popping up around the country as he readies a second run for president. He’s going tieless on network TV, strolling NASCAR pits in Daytona and sporting skinny Gap jeans bought for him by his wife.

His latest campaign book, just out in paperback, opens with a regular-guy scene: wealthy Mitt in a Wal-Mart checkout line, buying gifts for his grandsons and comparing the surroundings to Target, another discount store he says he’s familiar with.

The image tweaks are part of a broader makeover as Romney prepares to run from what should be an enviable spot: He’s the early Republican favorite — though far from an inevitable nominee.

The former Massachusetts governor will start out with valuable presidential campaign experience from his 2008 try, and a deeper financial network than his Republican rivals. The national economic debate plays to his background as an investment executive and “gives him a big advantage,” said Carl Forti, a former top advisor.

Yet for every edge, there are drawbacks. Taken together, they make Romney an unusually weak front-runner.

One of his biggest problems is “a suspicion that he is not as authentic as voters would like and he doesn’t connect as well with voters as they would like,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster not aligned with any candidate. “Politicians who are viewed as authentic have a much easier time connecting with the voters they are wooing. People like Ronald Reagan and [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie seem to have no trouble connecting, in part because they seem so comfortable in their skin.”

The problem has been fed by the fact that, in each of his runs for public office, Romney has remade himself. Last time out, he shed his moderate social views on abortion and gay rights, then struggled to convince primary voters of his conservative bona fides. A perception grew that the handsome candidate, with his almost-too-perfect hair and teeth and seemingly scripted answers to every question, would say anything to get elected.

I’m reminded very much of Al Gore, an obviously bright and competent fellow who was the son of a prominent politician and groomed for the presidency since infancy. Despite their talents and enormous success, neither man seemed comfortable in their skin. Barack Obama, by contrast, sometimes comes across as odd but he doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it or pretending that he’s “just folks.”

Aside from the NASCAR appearances, one of the amusing aspects of Romney’s latest makeover is running against Obamacare while defending a remarkably similar program he implemented as governor.  James Hohmann for Politico (“Mitt Romney’s prescription for ‘Obamacare’: Repeal it“):

Mitt Romney repeatedly called for the repeal of “Obamacare” in a Saturday night speech to New Hampshire Republicans, even as the former Massachusetts governor admitted his own state’s health care program “wasn’t perfect.” “Some things worked, some things didn’t, and some things I’d change,” he said of the Massachusetts plan he authored, without offering specifics.

In his first public appearance in the first-in-the-nation primary state since last October, the all-but-declared presidential candidate said that nothing the president has done during his first two years in office was “more misguided and egregious … than Obamacare.”

“Obamacare is bad law constitutionally, bad policy, and it is bad for America’s families,” Romney said. “The federal government isn’t the answer for running health care any more than it’s the answer for running Amtrak or the Post Office.”

Even though an individual mandate requiring coverage is the hallmark of both the Massachusetts law and the president’s plan — what critics respectively have dubbed “Romneycare” and “Obamacare” — Romney sought to draw a distinction between the two. “Our approach was a state plan intended to address problems that were in many ways unique to Massachusetts,” he said. “What we did there as Republicans and Democrats was what the Constitution intended for states to do — we were one of the laboratories of democracy.” “One thing I would never do is to usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover,” he added.

In his remarks, Romney three times called for “Obamacare” to be rolled back, saying at one point, “I would repeal Obamacare, if I were ever in a position to do so.”

I fully agree with Daniel Larison that all of this is not only absurd but counterproductive:

Romney would do so much better if he weren’t constantly changing to try to please people. As egregious as his numerous position switches have been, and as embarrassing as his pandering to foreign policy hawks over the last two years has been, Romney’s pandering was mostly limited to questions of policy and rhetorical style. He has a public image as a somewhat stiff, technocratic businessman, and that is the most genuine thing about him for the last five years.

If there is anything that would be more insufferable and hard to believe than Romney the zealous social conservative or Romney the foe of excessive government, it would have to be Romney the “regular guy.” One of the few things Romney has going for him is that he is not a “regular guy.” As ignorant or ideological as some of his positions can be, no one can deny that he is a very intelligent person. Romney and Bush are both MBAs from Harvard, but the difference is that Romney actually seems to have learned something while he was there. He has had a privileged life, he has been reasonably successful in the corporate world, and he is personally very wealthy. There is virtually nothing “regular” about him, and it is silly for him to pretend that there is. Refashioning Romney’s public image is just as likely to invite unwelcome comparisons with Al Gore as it will make voters react more favorably to him.

Candidates are almost always better off running on their own strengths rather than trying to pretend to be something they’re not. The latter not only comes across as inauthentic but it’s exhausting and self-defeating.

Regardless, I continue to believe the nomination is Romney’s to lose. He was the runner-up last time and is a polished campaigner, well financed, and well organized. He’s lining up key endorsements in New Hampshire and has to be the odds-on favorite to win there.

The question, as West notes, is how different the current political environment really is from those of the recent past.

If 2012 were a typical nomination campaign, Romney’s status as the establishment favorite would play to his advantage in the nomination contest. But today’s GOP is consumed by anti-establishment fervor. Energy in the Republican primaries is likely to be pulsing from fired-up “tea party” backers, and Romney will face fierce competition for their support from more-conservative rivals.

The problem with that, however, is that it presumes that 2010 will be the model. And maybe it will. But it’s much easier for small, intense groups to dominate off-year primaries and quite another to be a dominant factor when the broader electorate is interested.

Republicans will have to nominate someone who can get the Tea Party faction behind them. But a Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann will, in my judgment, not pass muster with the primary voters over the long haul of a presidential campaign.

Ultimately, I’m not sure the Republicans have anyone who can beat Obama who, despite a horrendous economy and failing to live up to his own promises on the foreign policy front, remains popular. But, to have any chance at all, the GOP will have to run a candidate who could plausibly be president. And Romney is that, recently polling as the only “presidential” Republican in the field.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Terrye says:

    Well, the problem is that people are more interested in fluff than substance. For instance, Mitch Daniels can actually cut collective bargaining for state employees, but he is not perceived as tough enough because he seems to conciliatory in his rhetoric. The people are more interested in appearances than reality.

    I think all politicians remake themselves to suit the time because that is what people want. Obama will not be running on change in 2012, that is for sure. He will be remaking himself as well.

  2. Tano says:

    “Obama will not be running on change in 2012, that is for sure.”

    I don’t think that is a sure thing at all. He may well re-embrace the change theme, while also acknowledging and embracing some of the criticisms of him – basically arguing that some change was successfully achieved (like health care), but that the failures were due to the huge distraction of having to clean up the economic catastrophe that Bush left him, plus the tragic return to power of the nihilist Republicans. Now that the economy is surging, he may argue, its time to redefeat the Republicans and get on with that change agenda.

  3. steve says:

    If Romney ran as the Romney or the 90s, I would consider voting for him, even with his total ignorance on foreign policy. (BTW, doesnt that bother you at least a little bit James?)

    Steve

  4. Trumwill says:

    I don’t know that the issue is as much that he’s trying to be more of an everyday guy than he is. It seems to me that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama made efforts at this as well. The thing is that GWB and Obama were/are actually successful at this while Romney is, as Gore was, particularly bad at it.

  5. Pug says:

    Romney might make a capable president, I don’t know. Given the competition he does seem to to have a couple things going for him: 1) he’s sane, and 2) he’s shown signs of moderation and consensus building ( both drawbacks in current Republican politics, btw).

    But he’s got a couple big problems as well: 1) he is a phony and people can spot a phony pretty quickly (“Obamacare”), and 2) the Southern Christian base of the Republican Party will have a real problem voting for a Mormon.

  6. Robert Soby says:

    Mitt who?

  7. JKB says:

    Pug, Romney is bad at faking sincerity. If the people could spot a phony pretty quickly we’d not have our current president. Although, I will give you that the people he needs to appeal to can spot a phony pretty quickly which is why they opposed Obama.

    Romney as his opponent is Obama’s best chance of a second term. Let us hope there is a dark horse in the Republican stables who can break out on a hard run while the other ponies are prancing around the corral.

  8. reid says:

    Romney’s problem isn’t just that he’s trying to be a regular guy. For years, he’s been trying to be whoever the group he’s talking to at the moment wants him to be. He’s given some pretty ugly speeches to various rightwing groups, for example. I vaguely remember one speech that was insulting to non-religious people. (In retrospect, that’s probably tame these days, but still.) If he was a principled, moderate, pro-business kind of Republican, I’d have some respect for him. Instead, I don’t know who he is, and his willingness to pander to the far right is a bad sign.

  9. Kylopod says:

    I know his transparent phoniness is almost too pathetic to comprehend. I just wonder about something: what choice does he have? If he admits Obamacare is little more than a federal version of his own program, he’s a goner in the primaries. He may be a goner already (I personally don’t think so, but I could be wrong), but he probably has a better chance with his current strategy than with any other. If he says he was wrong to pass the health care bill in MA, he’ll be denouncing his own signature achievement. Similarly, his flip on abortion in ’08 may have not seemed very convincing, but sticking to his pro-choice position would have probably tanked his candidacy much quicker.

    Indeed, I think a lot of the reason he continues to appeal to moderates is, ironically, that his right-wing pandering is so patently unconvincing they’re confident he’ll govern the way they prefer once he reaches the office. It’s almost as if he’s giving the signal, “I’ll do what I’ve got to do to earn the nomination of this crazy party, and then I’ll be free to govern as a grownup.” I don’t know that that’s such a safe assumption–if Romney wins in 2012, he’ll almost certainly be presiding over a Republican Congress that may still have considerable Tea Party influence, and at that point I doubt we’d be getting the same type of executive who ran MA in 2002.

    In any case, his current strategy, cynical as it is, could turn out to be the smartest one any candidate can muster in this environment.

  10. reid says:

    Obama is a phony? I’m afraid to ask what proof there is for that…. He strikes me as quite genuine and a decent, regular person.

  11. PJ says:

    @reid:

    Obama is a phony? I’m afraid to ask what proof there is for that…. He strikes me as quite genuine and a decent, regular person.

    Oh, you silly. It’s clear that a communist/socialist/marxist/muslim/atheist/gay/Kenyan/Indonesian son of Malcolm X with an autobiography written by Bill Ayers would never ever be able to win the presidential election. He was only able to do so by saying that he’s a Christian born in the US. Such a phony.

    😉

  12. reid says:

    Thanks for clarifying, PJ! So many juicy keywords to google… *retch*

  13. JKB says:

    Well, I was thinking more about what he campaigned as being and how that change went right under the bus. However, we can go with that he never revealed his underlying beliefs when he ran his campaign. He’s as phony as Romney.

    Or rather than go on and on about what you believe people have said about Obama, you might want to offer a reasoned essay on what he actually believes? Beliefs demonstrated by actions taken even when of no political advantage to him? Someone on the Left should write that and not leave it to those on the Right who’ve researched and tried to learn who he truly is.

  14. reid says:

    JKB: No one is as phony as Romney. On a scale of 1 to 10, Romney is a 10. He has dramatically changed positions on issues and panders shamelessly to the perceived Republican base. (Gore and Kerry, in contrast, made the mistake of listening to campaign advisers that recommended brushing up on their “regular guy” credentials, giving them the appearance of phoniness.) I think Obama has been far from perfect as president, but I think most of his divergence from campaign promises has been because of needed compromise to get things done and the unfortunate reality of things like the wars and gitmo. It’s easy to be an idealist in a campaign and a realist once in office. In any case, equating Obama to Romney is ridiculous and makes it plain how biased you are.

  15. anjin-san says:

    > Well, I was thinking more about what he campaigned as being and how that change went right under the bus.

    Actually, there has been quite a bit of change, though your dogma based worldview would hardly allow you to see that, or admit it if you did. Obama has run into the limits of power, which is something that happens to all Presidents.

    Funny though, if there has been no change, what is all the chatter on the right about how Obama is reshaping America into a socialist, neo-Europe, unrecognizable to real Americans. You would think he was Godlike in his ability to affect change after listening to Fox for a few days.

  16. Kylopod says:

    >It’s easy to be an idealist in a campaign and a realist once in office.

    Mario Cuomo said, “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”

  17. reid says:

    However, we can go with that he never revealed his underlying beliefs when he ran his campaign.

    And really, where does this come from? You don’t think his campaign web site explained his positions on the issues? That he didn’t consistently explain his ideas in debates and in interviews? Wouldn’t any reasonable person infer his beliefs from the kind of information? What are you suggesting with the phrase “underlying beliefs”? I’m cynically thinking that wingnuts are so sure that he’s hiding something (born in Kenya, closet marxist/muslim, etc.) and won’t own up to it, even though there’s zero evidence for any of it, that in their minds he must be a phony. Is that it, JKB?

  18. reid says:

    Mario Cuomo said, “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”

    Heh, that’s good. He was my governor for awhile, at a time before I was much into politics. I think if he was around now, I’d like him. I’m not in NY anymore, but hopefully the new governor is doing a good job….

  19. PJ says:

    @JKB:

    However, we can go with that he never revealed his underlying beliefs when he ran his campaign.

    What were these underlying beliefs you think he never revealed until after the election? You argue that he did this, yet you don’t seem able to actually, you know, give examples?

  20. reid says:

    What were these underlying beliefs you think he never revealed until after the election?

    I like that it’s up to us to explain his beliefs, despite the huge body of evidence out there written by him and other impartial reporters. I’m going to guess it’s pretty logically consistent and sensible to any unbiased observer. But because people on the Right have tried to do the hard work of digging up dirt and come up empty, he must be hiding who he truly is. A stunning Occam’s razor failure.

  21. ponce says:

    Mitt Romney is the Republican’s John F. Kerry.

  22. Gustopher says:

    When people look at Romney’s record of cynically reinventing himself based on who he is speaking to, and wonder who the real Mitt Romney is, they miss the obvious — that is the real Mitt Romney. He has no well defined principles. If people want a pirate Preaident, he’ll don an eyepatch and say “Arr!”, if people want a cat President, he’ll start calling himself Mittens.

    If you want the Tea Party agenda signed into law, he’s a safe choice. He doesn’t care what he does with the power, he just wants the pow

  23. reid says:

    Gustopher: That’s my conclusion as well, and the reason I couldn’t trust him to be any kind of moderate, especially with a Republican congress. I think he’d just be a brighter, more presidential-looking version of GWB.

  24. DRF says:

    Yes, Romney is transparently phony. His record prior to his Presidential run was moderate to liberal, and he’s clearly worked hard to distance himself from this. He’s also tried to portray himself as an ordinary guy (as all contemporary candidates do), and he’s clearly not. Any yes, he’s pretty terrible at his attempted remake. Does he have a “choice”? Sure, he does. He could try to run on what he genuinely believes, although that would undoubtedly doom his chances in 2012. Or he could choose not to run at all. Either way, he could retain his integrity. What he’s doing now is embarrassing and soul-destroying. In the unlikely event that he is elected President, he will then have to reap what he has sown, by trying to govern on the back of the Tea Party wave. This falls into the category of be careful what you wish for.

    And is Obama a phony? I don’t think so. Sure, like Romney and all other candidates, he’s tried to portray himself as more of a regular guy than he really is, but as I said above, all politicians do this–this is style, rather than substance. More importantly, he has been pretty consistent in what he has tried to accomplish compared to his campaign and his record.

  25. reid says:

    A similar story is McCain’s. If I remember right, he really did seem like a bit of a principled maverick in 2000 (though that image was no doubt overblown). In 2008 and 2010, though, he pandered like mad to the far right base. A complete, pathetic sellout, but hey, he’s still in the Senate!

  26. Franklin says:

    I actually want to like Romney. For one thing, his dad was a decent governor here in Michigan. And I think that deep down, Romney is moderate and would probably be a good president. But yeah, these switcheroos and being somebody he’s not is getting pretty annoying.

    Obama, on the other hand, is as far as we can tell, the same as he’s been since his college years, finding consensus amongst competing groups. His prolific legislation record is evidence enough, whether you agree or disagree with it.

  27. reid says:

    I would like to like Romney, too, especially given the rest of the loons on the Right, but I have to judge him by his speech and actions… and he comes up severely lacking, unfortunately. He did it to himself.

  28. Wiley Stoner says:

    Reid you are saying we on the right are loons? Yet your side is trying to spend our way out of debt! The comments here reflect ignorance of reality almost beyond belief. Did most of you just wander over from DK, or some far left site? Obama is a radical leftist who lied to get elected. If you did not pay attention to what happened last November, you will be totally shocked come November 2012.

  29. reid says:

    Wiley, you are clearly a loon, too. That is all.

  30. wr says:

    I don’t think Wiley’s a loon. I think he’s a computer program designed to random repeat Republican talking points, stringing them together at random.

  31. reid says:

    Heh, let’s call him ELOONZA from now on then.

    “Does it bother you that you’re trying to spend your way out of debt?”

    “Please elaborate on that a little more. Obama is a lying, leftist radical.”