He is the stiff technocrat chastised by the media for his awkward style and for his many changes of public persona. He is the son of a politician, born to privilege and capable of tremendously detailed policy wonkery that bores most other people silly. He is frequently compared to a robot or some other passionless humanoid, for which he then overcompensates with public displays of emotion. This was the media image of Al Gore, but it is now the image of Mitt Romney. Presumably someone has drawn this comparison before (it seems so obvious to me today that I wonder why I’d never thought of it before), but I think it is helpful in explaining why Romney has been such a weak candidate. Both have switched positions on abortion in their ambitions for national office in their respective parties, in which they are hardly alone, but Romney has shown an even more plastic flexibility with his positions on a range of issues. Most strikingly, like Gore’s later crusade against the evils of tobacco, Romney’s changed view on immigration has been startling…and also thoroughly unconvincing to many restrictionist voters. Huckabee’s flip-flop on immigration has been even more dramatic, obvious and opportunistic, but he has somehow pulled it off with a lot of restrictionist voters because I suspect they are more willing to trust the avuncular preacher than the blow-dried robot.
As with Gore, Romney’s personal associates insist that he is nothing like the public persona most of us have encountered through the media, and it’s fair to say that journalists have been even less forgiving to Romney than they were to Gore, but the public’s perception of both men was that they “did not know who they were” and were also fond of telling easily disproved whoppers about things from their past. In fairness, Gore seems to have had a few more of these, but whether it’s his claim about his father marching with MLK or his lifelong love of the hunt Romney seems to have the same propensity to tell stories that lend him a certain authority or distinction out of the keen awareness of a political vulnerability. Where Huckabee, like Clinton, responds to the awareness of his own weaknesses with jokes, Romney covers up for his liabilities with stories that don’t pass the laugh test, whether it is varmint-related or whether it concerns one of his serious policy shifts of recent years. Not only has this chameleon act been transparent and insulting to the intelligence of informed voters, but it reflects a basic contempt for the public and reflects a belief that is probably widely shared in the business and political worlds that people can be made to buy anything if it is repackaged and promoted with the properly-tested marketing. Considering our recent political history, this belief may be well-founded, but when the promotion of a candidate reeks of focus groups and consultants a great many voters will look elsewhere (I know this is hardly a novel or remarkable insight), and if there’s one thing that Romney’s chameleon approach tells voters it is that he is afraid to speak his own mind.
Also, taking that Hayes piece into account, it’s easy to see why voters, especially late-deciding voters, frequently go against Romney and go for his rivals: these voters apparently do not decide their votes based on issues in any sense of the word, but emphasise character and those always slippery “values.” Romney’s entire campaign has been, at least until recently, focused almost exclusively on issues and his “three-legged stool” of conservatisms, which satisfies pundits, activists and various other list-checking gnomes, and so keeps falling flat with these sorts of voters. Until, that is, he made an appeal in Michigan that was much more politically savvy and consequently full of dubious policy promises. For a change, he put away Mitt the Consultant to some extent (though at the same time actually emphasising his business credentials more than in previous contests), and he related to Michiganders in terms of sentiment, nostalgia and a sense of solidarity with them (as well as through his extensive campaign network and wodges of advertising cash). The promise of federal research funding was beside the point–what mattered was that he said that he would “bring Michigan back,” a phrase as popular as it was almost certainly disingenuous. The tagline from his ads in Michigan was “Michigan is personal for me,” which implied that he somehow intuitively understood Michigan’s problems in a way that someone with no direct connection to the state could. When he cannot summon this combination of personal and emotional appeals, he wins a certain segment of the electorate that focuses and votes on issues, and this has usually not been enough in genuinely contested races. Against him are ranged the master of bathos and the alleged “straight talker,” who win over voters in spite of their policy views and even, in Huckabee’s case, in the absence of them. No wonder Romney keeps losing to them.
P.S. For the pedants, let me add that I am not literally arguing that Romney = Gore in all respects. They are very comparable in the ways I have described.