During the election season of 2010, there was a schism in the Republican Party between populist Tea Partiers and more politically-sensitive establishmentarians. Today those two factions have been reshuffled into the Romney voters and the Anyone-But-Romney voters.
The media is still gawking at the volatile Iowa caucuses where the two camps did battle for the first time, resulting in a hair-breadth victory for Romney over the insurgent Rick Santorum. But in New Hampshire, it’s a much steadier affair. Polls have consistently crowned Romney the frontrunner, up to and including a recent 7 News/Suffolk University survey that found 41 percent support for the former Massachusetts governor. Ron Paul, in second place, is barely visible in the rear view mirror with 18 percent.
New Hampshire is the Mitt Romney Show. This doesn’t mean that Romney will win the nomination. The quirky, occasionally eccentric alloy of libertarian and moderate politics that is the Granite State Republican primary has produced presidential candidates and has-runs. But it will give him significant velocity going into other states.
But what happens if Romney gets the nomination? That question has been stubbornly elusive in media coverage, which has instead focused on the lothario innuendoes surrounding Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich’s grandiosity. Meanwhile Romney slips by relatively unscathed, the beneficiary of the perfunctory conventional wisdom of political strategists. Well, he looks good on television and doesn’t say outlandish things, so he must be the best candidate. He’s the flag-carrier for hardheaded realists who will compromise generously for a win over President Obama.
But he’s also a patrician flip-flopper from Massachusetts. Sound familiar?
This is the problem with Romney: a strong comparison can be made between him and 2004 historical footnote John Kerry, and the similarities aren’t just superficial. Romney seems to be haunted by Kerry’s ghost, perhaps as it sips a fine Sauvignon Blanc.
When Kerry won the Democratic nomination in 2004, the historical moment was rooted in the tumult of the Middle East and in smoldering memories of 9/11. But Kerry’s political genealogy traced back to the 1960s counterculture, found in war medals chucked over the White House fence and accusations of monstrous crimes against his fellow soldiers in faux committee rooms. The American people wanted a rock-ribbed leader who would prosecute the war and keep them safe while they slept. Kerry didn’t fit the part.
Kerry’s political life wasn’t any more helpful. He’d somehow made the transition from counterculturalist to Beacon Hill bon vivant, sipping French wines and parking his yacht at the Rhode Island marina, an almost-cartoonish portrait of a New England senator. But deep in his past, Democratic strategists spied a glimmer of hope. Kerry had spent three months serving in Vietnam and was decorated afterwards. It wasn’t much, but in the greasy hands of the right political strategist, it could work.
Thus Kerry was transformed into a barrel-chested war hero; a steadied military hand in a time of uncertain war. This charade was at its manufactured best when he stepped out at the Democratic convention and declared, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.” It hit an absurd nadir when the old war horse took up arms again and decided to go goose hunting, mugging for the camera in a camo hat. Inconvenient details, like the accusations of war crimes he leveled at his fellow soldiers or his fastidious record of military pruning in Congress, were papered over.
Today’s historical moment is one shaped by recession and belt-tightening. It’s also shot through with outrage. The American people are animatedly angry at their political and corporate elites. Romney is both a political and corporate elite, and it’s difficult to imagine him animated about anything, much less angry. All the open shirt collars and appearances on Letterman can’t erase those facts. They also can’t blot that damning picture from Bain Capital, where Romney grins as dollar bills flutter downwards.
But erase he must try. If Romney wants to win the general election, he’ll have to don the coat of a populist fighter ready to raise hell for the coupon clippers struggling to pay the mortgage. It is, to say the least, difficult to imagine — perhaps even more difficult than picturing Kerry as a GI Joe.
No demographic of Americans is reserved greater rage these days than the political class, a fact borne out by Congress’s 11 percent approval rating, according to Gallup. This may present the most daunting challenge of all for Romney: he’s a firmly entrenched politico. Romney’s been dipping his toe in the pool of presidential politics since at least 2005. He spent much of the Romney Administration — governor of Massachusetts, in this case — running for president. The Boston Globe calculated that Romney spent 212 days absent from Massachusetts in 2006, visiting 35 states to dig the foundation for a presidential bid. As one Bay State Republican operative told me in 2008, “It seemed he had Potomac fever from the time he got in, and everything was done to position himself to run for president.”
Republicans rose to national power last year on the wings of the Tea Party, which put its trust in citizen-politicians and rallied voters with cries of “Throw them all out!” It’s difficult to imagine an electorate of this composition rallying behind a man who’s spent the last six years running for president.
This is just one of the many contradictions and unfortunate facts that Romney’s political handlers will have to blur. Right now the polls pick Romney as being the most electable Republican candidate. This alone may ultimately score him the nomination, as Republicans fall into ranks and decide he’s their worst candidate except for all the rest. But will he still be able to win if the Obama campaign opens the historical vault and starts screaming about his Bain capitalist and Massachusetts runaway roots? If they do, his campaign handlers may find themselves in the awkward position of having to craft an alternative personality for their man, à la John Kerry in 2004. And as Kerry’s flameout that year would prove, such masquerades can be tough to stage.