Mitt Romney: The GOP’s Own John Kerry, or Is He More an Al Gore?

Up against a vulnerable incumbent, Republicans look set to go with the safe, rich, bloodless Bay Stater.

AP Photo (surfing); Getty Images (Romney)

It looks as though, for the second time in three presidential cycles, one of the major parties is about to bestow its nomination on a rich, patrician, out-of-touch, socially awkward, politically tone-deaf hair model from Massachusetts.

In 2004 it was the Dems tapping John Kerry. Now the GOP is inches away from handing its banner to Mitt Romney. This despite the fact that neither candidate is particularly beloved by his own party’s voters, and despite the baggage of East Coast liberal elitism that the Bay State inevitably imparts.

The chatter about whether Romney is merely Kerry 2.0 was perhaps inescapable. The parallels range from the geographic to the socioeconomic (both were born rich and grew richer), the ideological (both aren’t radical enough to suit their respective bases) to the cosmetic (great teeth, astonishing hair). As for retail political gifts (or lack thereof), watching either man try to relate to Joe Six-Pack is a bit like watching Michele Bachmann at a GLAD rally.

Also similar are the political climes in which the nominations have occurred. Romney, like Kerry, is up against an unpopular incumbent with vulnerabilities so glaring they have the opposition panting. In such a race, electability trumps all, prompting primary voters—after flirting with more thrilling suitors—to marry the safe guy, the default guy, the guy least likely to scare general-election voters with his extremist rhetoric, wild conspiracy theories, or ear-piercing primal screams. Sure, Rick Santorum makes the base’s loins quiver, but he also risks sending independents hurtling into Obama’s arms. (Women in particular might be loath to embrace a nominee who denounces contraception as “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”)

That said, even within Kerry’s and Romney’s core similarities lie key differences. While both men are famously awkward and terrible at glad-handing, Romney is far more reminiscent of Al Gore than of Kerry. Kerry, like so many of his Senate brethren, is your garden-variety bore. He talks too much and too dryly, droning on and on in a voice that could sedate a playground full of preschoolers hopped up on Ho Hos and Yo Gabba Gabba. He also has that irrepressible pomposity that’s partly innate and partly a byproduct of spending decades gas-bagging for the C-Span cameras.

Watching Romney, by contrast, prompts flashbacks to Al the Cyborg Gore. It’s not that the governor is dull. Rather, it’s that he somehow manages to come across as simultaneously stiff and slick, and jarringly ill at ease with any attempt at casual banter. The timing of his jokes is off, his smiles lack warmth, and his laughter doesn’t convey mirth so much as careful programming by a consultant. God help us if the man ever attempts to cry in public.

On the other hand, when it comes to the upper-crusty, too-rich-to-feel-our-pain issue, Romney seems to have the edge over Kerry. Yes, both men were born to privilege and went on to become vastly more privileged. But whereas Kerry married his multimillions, Romney went to work and made his.

Did Romney do some heartless shit while at Bain? No doubt. That is what these turnaround firms are all about. And a vindictive, still-smarting-from-Iowa Newt Gingrich intends to make sure America—and South Carolina in particular—learns of every struggling, good-hearted factory worker Bain ever kicked to the curb. With the populist anger afoot today, this is likely to cause Romney a few nosebleeds.

But most Americans don’t really hate or even envy the super-rich; hell, we aspire to be them. There is a certain grudging respect we tend to grant folks who get out there and get ’er done. Men who marry rich, by contrast, are often seen as dilettantish—effete even. Fair? Not really. Sexist? Almost certainly. But what about presidential politics isn’t? In the minds of many, ’tis better for a man to have gotten rich by ruthlessly screwing the working class than by … well, you know.

Who knows how all of these similarities or differences will balance out in the final equation, whether playing it safe will allow the GOP to claim victory or the governor’s run ultimately comes to the same tragic end as the senator’s.

But how odd it is that, when the stakes are at their highest and a party is desperate to the point of hysteria to pick a winner, the electorate turns to these bloodless Bay Staters. Go figure.