I was re-reading Game Change, a book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Two passages struck me:
“The candidates lined up at the urinals, Guiliani next to McCain next to Huckabee, the rest all in a row. The debate was soon to start, so they were taking care of business — and laughing merrily at the one guy who wasn’t there. Poking fun at him, mocking him, agreeing how much they disliked him. Then Willard Mitt Romney walked into the bathroom and overheard them, bringing on a crashing silence.” (Pgage 293)
“Unlike Guiliani, Romney had no reticence about slashing at his rivals. But the perception of him as a man without convictions made him a less than effective delivery system for policy contrasts. The combination of the vitriol of his attacks and his apparent corelessness explained the antipathy the other candidates had towards him. McCain routinely called Romney an ‘asshole’ and a ‘fucking phoney.’ Guiliani opined, ‘that guy will say anything.’ Huckabee complained, ‘I don’t think Romney has a soul.’ (Page 294)
Granted, that was in the heat of the 2008 race, but consider that even then Romney had a huge money and organizational advantage and he ended up succumbing quickly to John McCain — a man who had been considered dead a few months earlier due to a backlash in the GOP base against his stance on immigration reform. McCain had even said “why would I want to lead a party of such assholes” (page 284). But despite intense attacks from Limbaugh, Hannity and Glenn Beck, McCain emerged on top.
Fast forward to 2012. Williard Mittington Romney again has a huge advantage, this time having the GOP establishment in his pocket moreso than in 2008. Yet it seemed as if the Republicans were looking to find anyone else. If there had been a man with the record and character of John McCain in the running, he’d no doubt have managed to overcome Romney. But there wasn’t.
First was Bachmann, but she had no substance. Then came Perry, and he turned out to be embarrassingly unable to hold his own in debates and public grilling — a male Palin, if you will. Then they turned to Gingrich who, despite his numerous faults, was gaining traction and looked set to take down Romney. Romney used his money advantage to go hyper-negative on Gingrich and destroyed him. Gingrich was easy prey, to be sure, but still Romney couldn’t beat him by staying positive. Then last was Santorum who stuck around despite being an improbable candidate who had even lost his Senate seat in an election that wasn’t close. The Republicans had nowhere else to turn. But Santorum was simply too out of touch and weak. Romney emerged on top.
Simply, Romney hasn’t won by being himself or standing for something, he’s won inspite of the fact he can’t connect with voters and neither inspires nor excites. Where he did win in the past — the Governship of Massachusetts — he did so by embracing traditional northeast Republican pragmatism. He was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and he created a health care program for the state that inspired much of what became Obamacare. That path is gone. However competent he may be for the office, he’s simply not a good candidate. He’s speeches are boring, if he goes off script he sounds out of touch, and as a candidate he seems like a phoney. Hardly anyone believes he meant all of what he said during the primary season.
Republicans try to console themselves with bouts of wishful thinking:
1. It’s a referendum on Obama. Here the thinking is that it doesn’t matter who the GOP candidate is, people are going to vote about the economy and whether or not they’re happy with Obama’s performance. As long as Romney doesn’t implode, he can simply allow all the negative ads to work against Obama and eek out a victory.
The problem with that argument is first that Obama isn’t that unpopular. His job approval rating is about 50%, which is on the low side for an incumbent (much like President Bush in 2004), but his personal approval remains high — Americans generally like their President. While he’s not the rock star he was in 2008, he has a record and has disproven the “he’s a radical left wing extremist” rhetoric the GOP tried to use last time.
Second, the economy is enigmatic. We’re growing, but growing slowly. Jobs are returning, but returning slowly. Obama didn’t fix it yet, but it was the GOP who broke it. The economy really hurts a President when things look pretty good when he takes over and then fall apart on his watch. That’s not the case with Obama. This means that people aren’t simply going to vote one way or another in a knee jerk manner based on the economy, they’re going to consider the candidates.
2. Obama’s lost his luster. Here the thinking is that reality has bitten the young President, whose hair is now turning grey and who no longer arouses hope and the excitement of 2008. As such, he’s vulnerable and weak.
The reason this would make a difference is that it could create an enthusiasm gap — Democrats won’t be as inspired and enthused as in 2008, while the Republicans will be focused on removing him from office. Both look unlikely at this point.
Obama’s speeches are still powerful, and the Republicans have given him some assistance. The extremist agenda and rhetoric of the tea party and the red meat primary campaign have galvanized Democrats. Obama can point to achievements and skewer a “do nothing Congress.” Obama would be in a lot more trouble if the Democrats had kept the House in 2010.
On the other hand, Republican enthusiasm for Romney is weak. Voting turn out in GOP primaries was meager — sometimes in the single digits. It’s not clear what the evangelical base will do in response to Romney’s Mormon faith. At this point the “enthusiasm gap” looks almost certain to favor the President.
It’s early, things can change, but right now Mitt Romney looks to be a very weak candidate. He’s never shown a capacity to connect with voters or inspire. He’s relied on attacks and weak opposition. Obama’s weathered just about every attack one can imagine. His capacity to come out of nowhere to win in 2008 show that no matter what you think of Obama as President, he certainly is a strong candidate.