There’s a building on the campus of Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, called McBryde Hall. It is a handsome, Tudorish structure, with high, hammer-beamed ceilings and elaborate timber arches, like a dining hall from Harry Potter. Which is fitting, because if you’d happened to walk through McBryde’s whitewashed wooden doors around 3:30 on Wednesday afternoon, you would’ve have found yourself, suddenly, in a world at least as fantastical as Hogwarts.
Mitt Romney was delivering his stump speech.
Outside the walls of McBryde Hall, Romney was under siege. He’d spent the first two days of the week swatting at the gnattish problem of his income-tax returns—first at Monday’s debate, when he prevaricated over releasing them, and then on the trail Tuesday, when he’d confessed that his effective income-tax rate (15 percent) was much lower than what most middle-class voters pay, despite his $200 million fortune.
And it didn’t stop there. On Wednesday, ABC News added to the Mittster’s One-Percenter blues by revealing that he stashes millions of dollars in offshore accounts, and pollsters began to release the first of what would soon become a string of surveys showing Newt Gingrich gaining ground both nationally and in South Carolina. The results of the Iowa GOP’s certified caucus count had yet to roll in—results that would reveal on Thursday morning that Rick Santorum, and not Romney, had actually won the most votes in the Hawkeye State—but it was already clear that Mitt was not having the happiest week.
Inside McBryde, however, Romney was simply repeating the same lines he’d been repeating since Iowa—lines, I would argue, that set a new presidential campaign record for completely ignoring a little thing that normal people like to call reality.
I’m assuming that you, dear reader, have never had the pleasure of experiencing a Mitt Romney stump speech in person. I am also assuming that the reporters assigned to follow him around, day in and day out, have probably experienced it way, way too much. Meaning that for most people the Mitt Romney Stump Speech Experience is irrelevant, either too inaccessible or too familiar to bother with.
That’s too bad, because a stump speech is, by definition, a candidate’s mission statement, the one bit of hyper-refined, hyper-focus-grouped oratory that he deems most convincing, most compelling, and most representative of his candidacy. So while the reporters in the room yawned and obsessively checked Twitter, I tried to hear Romney’s with relatively fresh ears—to step back and actually listen to what he was saying. It was a fascinating exercise.
I said earlier that Romney’s stump speech was “fantastical.” Here’s what I mean. In Romney’s world, Barack Obama isn’t a president whose policies have failed, which is an argument that a reasonable person could reasonably make. Instead, he is the living embodiment, and source, of all that is wrong with everything, everywhere, a kind of omnipotent malefactor hellbent on destroying the U.S.A. The argument is so comically exaggerated in both scale and scope that Romney is forced to exaggerate—or just make stuff up—in order sustain it.
Some examples. According to the Romney stump-speech version of reality, Obama “believes that Europe had it right” and wants to “transform America” into a “European social welfare state” where “the government’s job is to take from some and give to others”—even though, under Obama, tax rates have fallen to their lowest level since the Truman administration and government jobs have declined at a record rate.
Romney Reality also holds that Obama “is a president who’s comfortable with trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see” and “hasn’t put out a plan to balance the budget or to cut back on what we’re spending”—even though in April 2011 Obama delivered a speech at George Washington University arguing that “we have to live within our means, reduce our deficit, and get back on a path that will allow us to pay down our debt” and has unveiled a pair of plans that would reduce the deficit by between $3.6 trillion and $4 trillion over the next 10 to 12 years.
Furthermore, according to Romney Reality, Obama “thinks the best way to get health-care costs down is to have the federal government take it over” and run it like “Amtrak and the post office”—even though the president quickly abandoned the “public option” so beloved by liberals and chose instead to pass a plan that in no way mirrors “a European approach in which the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees,” as Politifact has noted, but instead “relies largely on the free market to “set up ‘exchanges’ where private insurers will compete to provide coverage to people who don't have it.”
Finally, in Romney Reality, Obama “is a president who seems to think that the right course for American foreign policy is appeasement,” even though it’s difficult to discern which of Obama overseas exploits—killing Osama bin Laden and much of the rest of the Al Qaeda leadership; following the Bush timetable for withdrawal in Iraq; surging in Afghanistan; helping to depose Muammar Qaddafi—even remotely resembles the Nazi-enabling behavior of Neville Chamberlain.
And so on.
It is, of course, clear what Romney was trying to do in McBryde Hall, and what he’s trying to do elsewhere: rouse and connect to the Republican base by indulging and ventriloquizing every fantasy they have about the evildoer in the Oval Office. But in so doing he seems to have forgotten to explain why he’s the only effective antidote. Despite all the talk of Romney’s laserlike focus on the economy, his stump speech at Winthrop was strangely devoid of any specifics about his considerable qualifications for the presidency. Sure, he dropped a few hazy applause lines about “free enterprise” and “turnarounds.” But there was no Bain. No Salt Lake Olympics. And not a whole lot of Massachusetts.
What was left was the kind of tired, untrue anti-Obama rant that conservative shock jocks have been delivering on air for the past 30 months or so.
Needlessly to say, this doesn’t play to Romney’s (again, considerable) strengths, and it may explain in part why Gingrich, who is far better at this sort of Limbaughesque demagoguery, is now nipping at Mitt’s heels in the Palmetto State. If you’re going to spin a fantasy, you have to make people believe. Romney can’t.
As the tepid applause died down and the large room began to empty (Romney’s advance staff had roped off half of the hall to make the crowd look larger), I struck up a conversation with John Quinn, a 67-year-old Bronx transplant and telecommunications worker who’s now retired—“but not,” as he put it, “by choice.” Quinn is exactly the sort of voter Romney was seeking to excite with his remarks. “Obama is a liar, a socialist,” he told me. “This guy’s hanging out with communists and anarchists. I can’t believe that he actually became president. What the hell did he accomplish? Organizer. Come on. Give me a break. He glibbed his way into it.”
But unfortunately for Romney, the pitch didn’t go over all that well: Quinn was left cold by the performance. “It was the usual platitudes,” he explained. “If you’re going to go up against Obama, you’ve got to be a better speaker. More confidence, more enthusiasm, more with it. I don’t care about how you met your wife. I want to know what you’re going to do.”
I asked Quinn if he was planning to vote for Romney in the primary. “I’m going to vote in the primary for Ron Paul, because I want his voice to be heard and I want people to recognize that the guy is smart,” he said. “But I’ll be honest. I think Romney’s going to get the nod, because politics and all the backdoor bullshit that goes on in this country.”
Will you vote for him in the general then? “Yeah, if he won the nod,” Quinn told me. “I’ve got to be realistic. But I also have this feeling that once he gets in power, if he does, he’ll just be another politician going along with the Washington crowd.”