The great thing about Halloween is that something has the potential to scare us more than the prospect of either of these two guys winning the election. For the past year I’ve followed the 2012 race closely, mostly as a bored observer but for a brief time as a participant, driven by sheer Romney-phobia to the Newt Gingrich campaign. Speaking of Halloween, if anyone ever gave Mitt Romney a scare this year, it was the former speaker of the House, who for just a moment at least seemed likely to unravel the former governor’s carefully laid plans for victory.
But, as we all know now, it was not to be. Then, as now, a man largely unliked and untrusted by his own party may well be poised to reach the White House simply by outlasting and exhausting everyone else.
The lessons Romney used to beat Gingrich, as well as every other frontrunner-of-the-moment, said a lot about how Romney would run in the general election against President Obama. And it almost certainly will dictate how he would govern as president, should the good people of Ohio have a surprise in store on Election Day.
Lesson #1: Ideas Don’t Matter, Plans Do. During the seemingly endless quest to win over Iowa caucus voters, Gingrich talked about all sorts of ideas—on economics, agriculture, space, brain science, entitlement reform, government waste. He offered long discourses on almost any topic and in so much mind-numbing detail that even Charlie Rose would throw up his hands and say, “Enough!”
Yet astonishingly, Iowa focus groups complained that Gingrich never had a “plan” for the economy. “He needs to talk about his plan,” some said. They seemed to have missed that he had been talking, in detail, about his economic policies for months, even winning the endorsement of the architect of the Reagan economic program.
Romney, by contrast, knew exactly what buzzwords the voters wanted to hear. He talked about his “plan” all the time, and it was not that dissimilar to the one on his website right now, boldly titled “Mitt Romney’s Plan to Create 12 Million Jobs.”
“History shows that a recovery rooted in policies contained in the Romney plan will create about 12 million jobs in the first term of a Romney presidency,” the report notes. That’s good news, but when exactly did history show such a thing? The Romney “plan” offers such groundbreaking ideas as giving “every family access to a great school and quality teachers.” Gee, why hasn’t anyone else thought of that?
Obama’s “plan” is hardly better. On his website, he sets out as his goal to “create 1 million new manufacturing jobs by the end of 2016.” Did he pick that number out of the air? Who knows? How exactly will he do it? Who cares? Oh, and I think he stole Romney’s idea about making our schools “great,” too.
The lesson: Don’t bore people with details. Instead staple a bunch of platitudes into a pamphlet, create a website for it, and make boastful claims you don’t back up. Sounds like a plan to me.
Lesson #2: Win With Whoppers. Another cruel reality that was learned during the primaries: There is no longer much of a penalty for, shall we say, colorful embellishments. Now I wouldn’t go so far as to call our (potential) future president a liar. His primary opponents did that already. See here. And here. And here. Oh, and here.
People on the Gingrich campaign sometimes would watch with awe as Romney and his super PACs turned the man behind the Republican tsunami of 1994 into a corrupt, Reagan-hating liberal. And the former governor got away with it all, while candidates who complained were ignored or labeled whiners.
It was not just the big falsehoods Romney uttered that grated but the unnecessary little ones. Like the time he talked about his father marching with Martin Luther King Jr. when he hadn’t. Or reminiscing about events he could not possibly have witnessed. Or the changing stories about putting his dog, poor Seamus, on the top of his car. Or the latest thing about “binders full of women.”
We always thought Romney’s casual acquaintance with facts would eventually ruin his campaign. So did his other opponents. So, presumably, does Obama. That never happened. It turned out voters were so jaded about politicians that they assumed all of them lie with abandon. Not all of them do. Oh, and though the problem seems less severe, we won’t let Obama completely off the hook, either.
These types of problems do tend to catch up with presidents. And they will catch up with the former governor at some point if he keeps it up. Maybe once he’s sitting in the White House.
Lesson #3: You Get Points for Shamelessness. Watch Mitt (and Ann) Romney’s heartfelt testimonial to abortion rights. Then watch Romney vow to abolish Planned Parenthood. Is this the same man? Yes. Yes, it is.
Every candidate running for office changes his or her position on something. Nothing wrong with that. It’s even healthy for leaders to see things from a different perspective and alter their policies. But what about a candidate who changes his position on everything? From gay rights to tax cuts to his support for the Reagan-Bush years to abortion to universal health care. Romney could “Etch a Sketch” his positions with such seeming sincerity and commitment that it was often hard to believe he was the same guy who two weeks earlier said the opposite thing. But as George Costanza once said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
What does this mean for a Romney presidency? Almost every person I know on the right who supports Romney, including some major D.C. figures, does not believe he’s the right-wing conservative he claims to be. As one prominent Romney supporter told me the other day with a laugh, “No one knows what this guy is going to do when he wins.” He could veer right, he could veer left, he could stay in the middle—or, most likely, he will do all three. Whoever gets into his head last might win a policy argument. That presidency is going to be less stable than a Taylor Swift romance.
Lesson #4: It’s All About Obama. For much of the primary season, a majority of Republicans routinely voted for someone, anyone, other than Romney. This was because few GOPers felt they could trust him. So why have they begun to carry Romney’s banner? Because they convinced themselves the alternative is not only far worse but means to destroy the United States as we know it.
A vast majority of Republican leaders in Washington, people who before this election might have been considered reasonable and respected, truly believe Obama is determined to dismantle the capitalist system. Every instrument of the Republican Party establishment was deployed on Romney’s behalf from the very first day of the primary season, not because anyone liked Romney in particular, but because they believed he was the best bet to end the Obama era. The breathtaking risks right-leaning media outlets and pundits have taken for Romney—resting and compromising their credibility on someone they don’t really trust—demonstrates the depth of animosity, even hatred, for this president. It matches, if not surpasses, anything Democrats felt for George W. Bush. That GOP sentiment, deeply held and deeply rooted, made the primary all but impossible for any other Republican to win.
Of the many problems with that attitude, the biggest is this. If these people do succeed, and Obama is out of office in January 2013, what guiding force will drive them for the next four years? What agenda do they hope to achieve? No one seems to have given that much thought.
Lesson #5: The United States Is Two Different Countries (and Sometimes More). I’ve followed politics for about two decades, and I’ve never seen a political divide so great that it has led to two totally different realities. Read Daily Kos and you’ll be assured Obama is en route to reelection. Then go to The Drudge Report and you’ll find that Obama is facing political ruin. One side trumpets polls that show Romney ahead in Virginia, while the other side has a poll that says Obama has pulled into the lead there. One of those sides has to be delusional, but which?
During the primary, there weren’t just two, but multiple realities. There were the websites that praised Romney and attacked his Republican rivals, and websites that attacked Romney and boosted the fortunes of everyone else. Each told their readers exactly what they wanted to hear. Reality was what you made of it. In a Romney administration, that pattern is likely to continue.
Lesson #6: Sarah Palin Beats Donald Trump. Even though almost every prominent Republican went to great lengths to avoid offending nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin took a different tack. She questioned his principles, doubted his proposals, and wondered aloud about his fidelity to the things she believed in. True to her Tea Party roots, she never jumped on the bandwagon just because everyone else was doing it. People can decide for themselves what that says about her—she’s too radical, she used poor judgment, she’s gutsy, she sticks to her principles—but it was unusual. During the waning days of the Gingrich and Santorum campaigns, when every day seemed another boost for Romney, Palin would show up on TV and start defending them. She was like the cavalry to staffers looking for anyone to come to their aid. Those in the GOP who still don’t trust Romney are probably grateful.
Meanwhile, one-time Tea Partier, one-time birther, and serial flirt Donald Trump jammed his ring under the lips of every Republican seeking the White House, demanding that they pucker up. His support for one candidate or the other—Newt or Santorum or Bachmann or Romney—fluctuated with their level of support in the polls. Now he has officially made himself into a total embarrassment. Time to go back to “firing” Dionne Warwick.
Without question, Palin is a far more serious person than Trump is. Which, depending on your view of the former governor, may really be saying something.