02.09.12

Mitt Romney’s No More Of a Mystery Than Barack Obama

Romney may take both sides on issues and encourage voters to project what they want onto him, but he is not hiding his “real” nature any more than the president is. With both men, it’s called politics, says Lee Siegel.

The current meme, taken up with a vengeance by the liberal media, is that no one knows who the real Mitt Romney is. Why does that sound familiar?

True, I have no idea what Romney believes on virtually any issue. Like everyone, I am struck by his pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence. The real conundrum is why this man seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. He either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his election.

I am sure that no liberal would disagree with that assessment of Romney. I am as sure of that as I am of the fact that most liberals heartily assented to those very words when they were used to describe President Obama six months ago in the New York Times, in a scathing op-ed essay by Drew Westen. I’ve quoted them almost verbatim.

There were dissenters, to be sure, but the chorus of hosannas that rose from the liberal media in response to Westen’s criticisms was almost unanimous. And now, with the presidential election looming, those very criticisms have been displaced from the president who was widely perceived, by his own supporters, to be an empty suit, onto his likely opponent in the fall.

Yet to say that both Obama and Romney are hiding their “real” natures beneath contradictory positions is to mischaracterize them. With rare exceptions, a modern democratic politician possessing a real, unalterable nature is an oxymoron. When someone is described to us as being very “political,” we know that we are being told to keep our guard up. Why, then, do we keep expecting our politicians to reassure us with their integrity? They are political, through and through, and we should stop being so shocked, shocked, when they act politically.

In Romney’s case, no one wants to accept that he is merely being a politician. Instead, he is dangerously mystified. Several months ago when he said during a televised debate, using the exact same words, that the was “not concerned about the very poor,” no one made a peep—and he didn’t even add the bit about fixing the safety net if necessary that he did when he repeated the sentence last week. Now, however, he utters the very same words and a terrible uproar ensues. What did he mean? What did he really mean? Was he being accurately quoted?

Yet he was doing what just about every Republican politician does, which is to reassure the middle class that he was not going to shift his attention away from them to the poor. After all, the poor don’t vote in great numbers, and when they do, they usually vote Democratic. But the liberal media was, again, shocked, shocked, to find a Republican speaking like a Republican. Why does the “Mitt-bot” keep making such flubs, they asked? Endless analysis of his “enigmatic” character followed. The result was to deepen and mystify a simple political remark. By the time the analysis was over, Romney seemed to be sympathetic to the middle class, the rich and even the poor, whose safety net he was going to fix.

The unflattering comparisons being drawn between Romney and his father also only make him more attractive, by raising the hope that the apple will not fall far from the tree. The standard narrative now is that George Romney, as governor of Michigan, presidential candidate, and secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was an honest, decent man who stuck to his guns, no matter what. Maybe. And maybe that is pure nonsense.

The Republican George Romney is being celebrated for standing up to his party on civil rights, for example. He was indeed a staunch defender of civil rights. But he also was the governor of a Democratic state, at a time of growing liberal consensus. His anti-labor stance and business experience as CEO of American Motors Corporation guaranteed him the support of Detroit’s growing affluent Republican suburbs. His business-minded opposition to big-business—i.e. his former competitors, Detroit’s Big Three—and his strong civil rights stance guaranteed him much of the liberal vote, as well as a decisive black vote. In his successful second run for governor, he garnered 30 percent of Michigan’s black vote, something no Republican candidate in the state had ever done.

Romney pere’s powerful advocacy of civil rights policies at HUD was admirable and honorable. But it also undercut his former presidential rival, Richard Nixon, and strengthened his base among liberals and blacks in Michigan, should he have decided one day to run for Senate. (In the event, his wife Lenore ran for Senate instead, and lost.)

Even George Romney’s notorious change of heart on the war in Vietnam—the mother of all flip-flops—is being hailed as an example of courageous moral resolve. Running against Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney declared in August 1967 that he had been brainwashed into supporting the war during a 1965 trip to Vietnam, and now proclaimed his opposition to it. His reversal could have been on high moral principle. Then again, it could be that he was trying to make an end-run around Nixon using the same cut-both-ways strategy he had used to get elected governor of Michigan. In his campaigns for governor, he had appealed to the liberal wing of the GOP in order to win over Democratic voters. It had worked when Romney contrasted himself with the disastrously right-wing Goldwater in the early sixties. That it didn’t work as he tried to contrast himself with Nixon didn’t mean that Romney wasn’t hoping it would.

The saintly father, the complex, multi-faceted son—even as they are displacing their unhappiness with Obama’s “unknowableness” onto Romney, the liberal media is mystifying Romney in some weird inversion of its mystification of Obama three years ago. For liberals, of course, the mystique is a horrible one. But in some disturbing sense, by making him a mystery instead of treating him as a politician, they are doing Romney’s work for him. Voters who are tired of politicians and of “more of the same” love an exciting new mystery.