As his formidable campaign marches inexorably toward the nomination, Mitt Romney should learn a vital lesson from the guy who beat him in his first race for public office: Sen. Ted Kennedy.
In 1980, Teddy lost his own bid for the presidency because he couldn’t answer a simple question about why he wanted the job. Like Kennedy, Romney could undermine his confident drive to unseat a stumbling incumbent unless he prepares clear, concise, and forceful responses on what he means to do with the office he seeks.
Near the end of the disastrous Jimmy Carter administration, most analysts expected an easy win for the charismatic Kennedy if he chose to take on the sitting (duck) president of his own party. But on Nov. 4, 1979, CBS News ran a prime-time profile of the prospective candidate in which veteran newsman Roger Mudd asked the senator: “Why do you want to be president?”
The camera showed an intense closeup of Teddy’s long, awkward pause before he managed an incoherent reply. “Well, I’m, uh …” he clumsily began, and then lurched straight ahead. “Were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country, that it is … there’s more natural resources than any nation in the world. There's the greatest educated population in the world. It just seems to me that this nation can cope and deal with the problems in a way it has done in the past ... It brings a sense of restoration by its people. And I would basically feel that it's imperative for the country to either move forward, that it can't stand still or otherwise it moves backwards."
Following this stunningly inept performance, it was Teddy, and not the country, that moved backward: the anticipated Kennedy juggernaut quickly collapsed as it became instantly apparent that the youngest brother of a fabled family in no way replicated the ready wit or easy eloquence of Jack or Bobby. Above all, his failure to provide a logical argument on behalf of his candidacy meant that Democratic voters felt no inclination to seek reasons of their own. In the primaries that followed, President Carter—an inept and flat-footed politico in his own right—dispatched his overrated rival with unexpected ease.
If Mitt Romney hopes to avoid Teddy’s fate and to close the deal with still-skeptical segments of the Republican base, then he should look long and hard at the appalling Roger Mudd video from 33 years ago. No, he’ll never resemble Kennedy as an inarticulate lug: the Mittster on his worst day, with his most embarrassing answer, still delivers more lucidity than Teddy offered CBS in the now notorious broadcast.
But the core problem that destroyed the Kennedy cause also threatens the Mitt machine and could become a serious drag unless the candidate faces it squarely. In both cases, telegenic younger sons of famous, powerful families seek the presidency with a sense of entitlement, rather than a discernible mission; they seem to pursue power because they deserve it, rather than planning to use it for a perceivable purpose.
No one doubts Romney’s sincere love of country or questions his core competence, but a campaign that emphasizes executive ability and shies away from political principles will inevitably echo yet another failed presidential aspirant from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. In 1988, the governor who had presided over the heavily hyped “Massachusetts Miracle” promised a clean break from the partisan warfare of the Reagan era by asserting, “This election is about competence, not ideology.”
In November, the public strongly preferred George Herbert Walker Bush, who at least offered a clear indication of the direction he meant to lead the country as he campaigned on the unequivocal reaffirmation of Reaganism.
Romney can’t win with a Dukakis-like technocratic appeal—or by echoing Ted Kennedy’s sense that he belongs in the White House through family tradition. It’s not enough to repeat the mantra that he’ll fix the mess in Washington; he needs to explain the recipe for repair. He can’t endlessly intone that he’s worked 25 years in the private sector and he “knows how to create jobs”; it’s important that he explains to the public what he knows and outlines precisely what he plans to do with that knowledge.
Yes, his 59-point economic plan deserves respect as a serious, plausible, and soundly conservative document, but could even the most engaged observers remember 59 points? Rick Perry couldn’t recall three.
Mitt needs a simpler, more down-to-earth blueprint with catchy and comprehensible elements—something like his own 9-9-9 plan. When Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich come around to endorse his candidacy (as they probably will within weeks) he should use the occasion to endorse their populist marketing approaches, with an appealing plan for radical tax simplification and a brand new Contract with America.
Romney has already promised that within a week of taking office he’ll issue executive orders providing every state with a presidential waiver to escape the onerous burden of Obamacare. That’s a good beginning, but how about more sweeping pledges for the first seven days of the Romney era?
He could pick up Newt’s vow to fire all the White House czars and to abolish their offices, and then go beyond it to trim two thirds of the White House staff (yes, President Romney could survive with only 400 personal assistants). He could employ executive orders to clear appropriate energy projects (including the Keystone XL pipeline), unconscionably delayed by team Obama; how about authorizing 50 new energy efforts in his first 50 days?
The more detail Mitt provides as part of an ambitious and concrete agenda, the more effectively he answers the dreaded question, “Why do you want to be president?” His reply should never reference his personal preparation for handling the job, and should concentrate on the nation’s future rather than his professional past.
Above all, he should define big goals that people understand and appreciate like:
- Stopping the Obama spending spree and making real progress on shrinking government and growing liberty.
- Reforming the tax system, with an emphasis on radical simplicity and transparent fairness; the Steve Forbes flat tax or the Mike Huckabee “Fair Tax” could provide useful models.
- Rolling back regulation, eliminating federal favoritism, and crushing corporate welfare.
- Reducing overall spending to 20 percent or less of GDP from its current dangerous level of 25 percent, while pressing for balanced budgets and spending limits mandated by a constitutional amendment (if possible) or federal statute (if necessary).
Seizing specificity will animate his campaign, reassure worried conservatives, and provide a profound advantage over Barack Obama, who can’t possibly run on a platform of sweeping change.
If the president promises a dramatic course correction, he thereby concedes that he’s been driving down a dead end—and damages his campaign. If, on the other hand, he offers America more of the same he defies the overwhelming majority who believe we’re headed in the wrong direction—and once again damages his campaign. The only hope for team Obama involves the demonization of their enemies—warning that Republicans in power will do ugly, unspeakable things that only worsen our national pain.
The best answer to that attack is to remove all doubts about GOP intentions and to disclose, as precisely and passionately as possible, what empowered conservatives mean to achieve. The current calendar suggests a long interlude—perhaps as long as five months—between Romney’s locking up the GOP nomination and his formal coronation at the Tampa convention. He should use that time to make and disclose detailed plans for his first week, his first month, and the rest of his first term.
This will not only give him a boost in the fall campaign but allow some overdue score-settling with an old opponent. Ted Kennedy may have bested Romney in the fiercely-fought Massachusetts Senate race of 1994, but with an unhesitating, energized, and even inspiring answer to the inevitable question of why he wants the presidency, Mitt can escape the ghost of his one-time rival while learning the lessons of his baleful example.