Imagine being so disliked by members of your own party that they’re prepared to lose the general election just so they don’t have to elect you in the primary. That’s the predicament Mitt Romney’s currently facing, and it can’t feel too awesome. With the “Anyone-But-Mitt” movement persistently growing—it has its own website and twitter feed—and his precipitous decline in the polls, Romney has to face the fact that he’s been de-friended by the Republican Party and do something about it fast.
It’s reasonable to ask—as Time asked on its Romney cover last week—“Why don’t they like him?” After all, apart from Romney-care and immigration, he’s paid his Republican dues and taken the party line on most issues. What’s more, he’s a god-fearing family man with a less worse track record than any other candidate still in the race. So by now, you’d think he’s earned his place as the party’s frontrunner and could just run sanctimonious anti-Obama ads from now until November. Not to be. If Romney wants to win the primary, he has to abruptly change course—he’s good at that—and figure out how to endear himself to the GOP once and for all.
Easier said than done. After all, these are the same gridlock-inducing thugs who, just this summer, happily watched the U.S. lose its triple-A credit rating as a result of their need to wield power for power’s sake in D.C.
The only way to get through to these people is for Romney to give them the impression that they’re in total control and he wouldn’t want it any other way. Forget the hard sell. Forget charging at them with the advertising equivalent of a baseball bat. The Romney campaign must go the subliminal route. In other words, it needs to roughly invoke Naomi Wolf’s (widely publicized but unsuccessful) attempt to humanize Al Gore in the 2000 election when she advised him to “wear more earth tones.”
Where Gore needed to prove that he did, in actuality, belong to our species, Romney’s greatest obstacle is showing that he’s not such a creepily flawless example of it. And it’s not just a matter of mussing his hair. Yes, it’s the kind that won’t even frizz at the Republican convention in Tampa next August, but unless you’re a maniacally hair-straightening Jewish girl from New Jersey—who’s probably not going to vote for him anyway—that shouldn’t really bother you. So, what is it? What does Romney need to fundamentally change in order to find favor in the eyes of those unrelenting, cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face, stay-the-course-at-whatever-cost GOPers?
Well, let’s start with what he shouldn’t do. He shouldn’t run the ad that his campaign released last week (and plans to blast over the Iowa airwaves starting today). The feel-good commercial, “The Right Answer”—one that looks like an ad for life insurance and sounds like the score from Apollo 13—is exactly the wrong answer. Romney has so much polish as a candidate that running a slick, self-aggrandizing spot makes as much sense as laminating a glossy.
Instead, he needs to find a means of revealing his authentic self. He needs to show that he’s fallible and, more important, vulnerable and in that way, give the Grand Old Patriarchy the opportunity to do what it likes doing best: playing Daddy. My feeling is that, similar to most fathers, all the GOP really wants to do is watch Mitt make a mistake, sternly chide him for it, put him in his PJs and show him how it’s done first thing in the morning.
And here’s how he might achieve that. Instead of purchasing conventional airtime, the Romney campaign should stage a “live-mic accident” like the one that occurred with Mike Murphy and Peggy Noonan on MSNBC in the lead-up to the last election. They need to procure another interview with Fox’s Bret Baier, for example, and tack on the live-mic segment at the end. It would go something like this:
Five-minute interview where Baier asks Romney a bunch of questions to which he—and any schmuck with basic cable—knows all the answers. Romney deflects by saying stuff like: “with regards to my views, I’m happy for people to take a look at my book,” “what we did in Massachusetts was right for Massachusetts,” and “I think you have to have the credibility of understanding how the economy works, and I do.”
The interview officially ends but the dialogue continues to be recorded.
Mitt (commiseratively): Bret, this "Anyone-But-Mitt" schtick is totally outrageous. You know it. I know it. The GOP knows it. I mean, apart from that weird “Who let the dogs out?” thing I did in Jacksonville that time, I’m the perfect candidate for the Republican Party. Sure, I’m a bit of a square and no one likes a square. But Bret, don’t get me wrong, I think about sleeping with a woman who's not my wife as much as the next guy…
Long pause as Romney’s informed that his mic is “accidentally” still on.
Mitt (vulnerably): What? There’s a live mic? …
Another pause as the live mic is confirmed.
Mitt (still vulnerable): Joseph f___n’ Smith. You’ve got to be kidding me.
SFX: Mic being ripped from lapel in “I want my Daddy”-type despair.
Within hours, the clip is viewed more than two million times on You Tube and has been parsed on every talk show from Morning Joe to Colbert. Mitt and his wife—who, unlike most political wives, doesn’t look completely repulsed by being in her husband’s presence—do an emergency interview with Barbara Walters followed by an appearance on The Late Show. As Mitt reads the Top Ten Reasons Why He’ll Never Deviate From His Talking Points Ever Again, we see him like we never have before. He looks flushed and uncomfortable. His complexion has an unsavory sheen. His diction is sketchy. In other words, he looks human. Endearingly so. And the whole country is watching. Including Eric—hardass, Republican man-boy—Cantor and those fuddy-duddy GOPers whose dentures have long since been suspended in a glass of water on their bedside tables. Everyone’s head is sympathetically tilted to the side and all are affectionately thinking the same thing: “Awww, Mitt-ski, it’s late. Go to bed. We’ll make it all be better in the morning.”