Mitt Romney’s Debt-Ceiling Statement Makes Him the Cowardly Candidate

Mitt Romney bolsters his reputation for insincerity by pandering to the right, says Michael Tomasky.

Chip Somodevilla / AP Photo

Barack Obama got taken to school by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, but he does have this much going for him: He’s probably going to be running for reelection against Mitt Romney, whose entry into the debt-ceiling debate was laughably late and wrong. Romney said Monday morning, after weeks of silence and after it was pretty apparent that the bill was going to pass, that “while I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama’s lack of leadership has placed Republican members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal.” He added that he couldn’t back a bill that “opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table.” So what do we make of this?

Romney is going straight Tea Party here. It’s interesting—you might have thought he’d conclude that Michele Bachmann had that market cornered. She, of course, voted no when the House passed the debt bill Monday night. She was one of 66 Republicans to do so. Those are Bachmann Republicans. You might have thought that the 174 Republicans who voted yes—the more “moderate” ones, and, after all, the ones on the winning side—were Romney’s crowd.

This is an excellent example of what’s wrong with the guy. He has very cowardly instincts. What would have been wrong with him saying something like, “Hey, as much as I hate it, I understand what Congress is like. As the song says, you can’t always get what you want, but I think Mitch McConnell and John Boehner took Barack Obama to the cleaners, and we’re nudging the needle in the right direction here. So with reservations about the defense spending and a caution that we must be absolutely vigilant that those wimpy Democrats don’t weaken our defenses and undermine our fighting men and women, I support it.”

Wouldn’t that have worked fine? It’s the establishment Republican position. The two leading Republicans in the country support it. Nearly 73 percent of House Republicans just backed that position, and a similar or probably even higher percentage of senators is going to back that position today. I also can’t imagine that a large number of Republican high-dollar donors are off in Bachmann land. So Romney had the chance to make a distinction between himself and the woman who now appears positioned to be his chief challenger.

So why didn’t he? Iowa. The two Republicans from Iowa in the House, Steve King and Tom Latham, both voted against the deal. Romney will have to finish respectably in the state to stay alive. And throw in South Carolina, where all five Republican representatives voted against the deal. Interestingly, the two Republicans who represent New Hampshire in the House both voted for the deal, but Romney probably felt he didn’t need to go with them because he feels he already has that state in the win column.

One supposes this is understandable, but even so, there is really just something wrong with this guy. OK, he looks like a president. He could play a president in a movie. He succeeded in running the 2002 Olympics. He’s made many millions of dollars, so he possesses some skill set (although we’ve all encountered not very smart people who’ve made lots of money, which suggests that making a lot of money is not so much a function of intelligence as it is of an overwhelming desire to ... make a lot of money; besides which, it helps when your father ran a car company).

But he’s just ... off. He comes across as completely insincere. I say that without any ideological judgment; I find Bachmann far more frightening ideologically but cannot and would never doubt her sincerity. But with Romney, you just know deep down that he would be far more comfortable with a conservatism like his father’s and George H.W. Bush’s. In this day and age, he can’t be that, can’t quite run as who he really is, because he’d be garroted by the Leninist purists who’ve taken over his party. But he could drop a hint every once in a while. Instead, he tries to pretend he’s something he’s not and just ends up looking silly.

That’s the thing to watch for with Romney: When will he say something that is interesting and that he really and truly believes? Because he's always saying things that are incalculably boring and that he clearly doesn’t believe. And he says them late, after he’s focus-grouped them down to the part in his hair. He’s still the chalk choice, as they say in the racing trade, but chalk doesn’t leave a permanent impression.