Mitt Romney’s Nixon Problem in 2012’s Republican Presidential Primary

The GOP frontrunner is still widely viewed as a plastic candidate. Michael Medved on how Mitt Romney must escape the ghost of ideological chameleon Richard Nixon—and how Herman Cain can help. Plus, join The Daily Beast's live debate chat at 8 p.m. ET.

Richard Ellis / Getty Images (left); AP Photos

A ghost from 1968 haunts the campaign of Mitt Romney—and no, it’s not the memory of his father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, who stumbled as a leading GOP contender 43 years ago.

For the younger Romney, the more worrisome blast from the past involves the campaign of Richard Nixon, who ultimately won the nomination by default but never managed to inspire real enthusiasm from the party faithful. As with Mitt, nearly all Republicans considered Nixon acceptable as a standard bearer as the former vice president positioned himself in the safe center of the party.

But grassroots activists felt far more excitement about candidates like Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and California Gov. Ronald Reagan on the party’s right, or New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and New York City Mayor John Lindsay from the party’s moderate, establishment wing.

Nixon carried the taint of a perpetual candidate who had lost high-profile races. He couldn’t get elected California governor two years after losing the presidency in 1960, and he looked like an ideological chameleon who would assume any policy position or employ any unscrupulous stratagem for the sake of victory. The nickname “Tricky Dick” became inescapably affixed to his public persona.

Rightly or wrongly, skeptics apply similar negatives to Mitt Romney, highlighting the hardball tactics he employed in disappointing defeats in the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race against Ted Kennedy and the battle for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, while ridiculing his many shifts on major issues from abortion and guns to health-care reform and gay rights. Even the fiercest Romney and Nixon critics concede formidable intelligence and proven competence but raise fundamental questions about authenticity—offering descriptions like “phony,” “plastic,” or “empty suits.”

Of course, Romney enthusiasts dismiss such comparisons as unfair to their favorite: for one thing, Mitt qualifies as the most freakishly photogenic presidential candidate since John Kennedy, and he remains preternaturally suave, confident, and unflappable even in the most combative situations. Nixon, on the other hand, frequently came across as sweaty, vulnerable, and disheveled, while his hyper-emotional insecurity ultimately torpedoed his presidency.

Moreover, even with his famous faults as a candidate, Nixon managed to win the White House on his second try, and many observers expect Mitt to overcome the reservations of party activists to win a similar victory against a highly unpopular Democratic administration.

But the course of the ’68 campaign should give the Romney Regiments reason for pause: despite disastrous divisions among the Democrats and a third-party candidacy by Alabama Gov. George Wallace that drew millions of typically Democratic blue-collar votes, Vice President Hubert Humphrey closed the gap dramatically in the campaign’s final weeks and came within a whisker of upsetting the heavily favored, overconfident Republicans. Nixon drew only 43.4 percent of the popular vote, besting Humphrey by seven-tenths of 1 percent.

Romney can’t rely on a similar path to victory: with the first caucuses and primaries less than three months away, there’s little chance for an internal Democratic challenge to President Obama, and no one expects a major independent candidate to drain votes from the incumbent party. This means Romney, as the presumed nominee, will need far more focused, energetic efforts to overcome his drawbacks than the frontrunning Nixon deployed in 1968.

These attempts to reinvigorate a solid but unexciting candidacy should concentrate on two names: Herman Cain and Marco Rubio. Indeed, those two popular personalities could conceivably provide Romney with the formula for landslide victory in November.

Cain, now riding high in preference polls, is already providing Romney with a huge advantage that Nixon never enjoyed: a likable, credible, energizing primary opponent. In August 1967, George Romney made a bumbling declaration to the press that included the infamous claim that he’d been “brainwashed” by generals about the Vietnam War, and his once-promising campaign collapsed, leaving Nixon with a clear path to the nomination. This situation only deepened the perception of Nixon as stiff, remote, cautious, and dull. It’s tough to look like winner without dynamic primary opponents you can beat.

Romney won’t face that problem, thanks to Cain. The Herminator clearly lacks the national organization or campaign war chest to derail the well-oiled, lavishly funded Romney juggernaut, but his folksy, sympathetic personality and compelling debate performances should allow him to continue as a candidate, and as pitchman for his bestselling book, through the convention in Tampa. Cain also displays little inclination to destroy or discredit his opponents and thereby compromise the enormous reservoir of goodwill he’s accumulated. He can, in other words, serve Romney’s interests in much the same way Mike Huckabee served John McCain’s interests in 2008: providing a challenge that allows the frontrunner to sharpen his skills and enhance his stature without damaging the anointed winner with personalized or mean-spirited attacks.

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Cain offers another important assist in enabling Romney to avoid Nixonian traps: as the GOP nominee in 1968, Nixon suffered from a maddeningly vague and platitudinous platform, featuring a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, that made his campaign too easy to disregard or dismiss. The cautious, wary, disciplined Mitt Romney suffers from similar tendencies: So far, few voters can identify bold or dramatic proposals associated with his campaign; certainly nothing that’s captured the public imagination in the style of Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan. Romney doesn’t need to steal or adapt that proposal, but he does need some clear-cut, comprehensible proposals for sweeping change—well beyond his soporific and overly detailed “59-Point Economic Plan”—to energize his base and enhance his bland image.

And that leads to the second name Romney must consider to enable his campaign to escape Nixon’s shadow: Marco Rubio, the compellingly charismatic junior senator from Florida. Nearly all Republican strategists place Rubio at the top of the list as a potential running mate in 2012, and the Floridian’s youth, passion, peerless communication skills, and Cuban ancestry might provide a particularly effective complement for the cool, collected, soothing aura of the Mittster. Whether it’s Rubio, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Cain himself, or some other high-energy shining star in the conservative firmament, Romney should select a vice-presidential nominee who adds pizzazz and electricity to the ticket.

He can’t repeat Nixon’s mistake of choosing a candidate who won’t possibly upstage him: Tricky Dick selected a little-known moderate and recently elected Maryland governor named Spiro Agnew, but Agnew’s frequent stumbles during the campaign (calling an Asian-American reporter a “fat Jap,” for instance) hardly aided the GOP cause. Only later did Vice President Agnew generate real excitement: first with his Pat Buchanan-scripted attacks on liberal media, and then later with revelations of outrageous bribe-taking back in Baltimore, featuring thousands in cash in paper bags, that led to his resignation as veep.

Such steps can help transform a somewhat drab and methodical campaign into a spirited crusade that might ultimately sweep the country, allowing all conservatives to embrace a new version of Nixon’s slogan in ’68, proudly proclaiming: “Romney’s the One!”