What If Mitt Romney Said What He Really Thought Thursday Night

Mitt will give a pitch-perfect, button-down speech accepting the GOP nomination Thursday night. But what if he said what he really thinks? If only he could figure out what that is. By Matt Latimer. Plus, Peter Beinart on what Mitt should say in his speech.

Brendan Smialowski, AFP / Getty Images

Making the obligatory rounds with the press corps to preview Thursday night’s acceptance speech, Mitt Romney, the regent of references last uttered by characters on Happy Days, quoted Popeye the Sailor Man: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” Romney said to Fox News. So enamored is the former governor with the phrase that he’s repeated it several times. Talking to Politico, Romney praised his lack of introspection and self-analysis—making the alarming if it were true claim that “I never look back” on mistakes. He then offered this priceless sentiment: “I know there are some people who do a very good job acting and pretend they’re something they’re not.”

All of this tells us something fascinating about what’s in store for America on Thursday evening. The one-time moderate-independent-conservative-anti-Reagan-pro-Reagan-pro-choice-pro-life-more-pro-gay-rights-than-Teddy-Kennedy-anti-gay-marriage-man-of Michigan/Massachusetts/New Hampshire/Utah plans to base his convention speech on his consistency.

Which leads to this thought: What if he means it? What if, on Thursday evening, Mitt Romney planned to reveal that the “very good actor” to which he earlier referred was himself?

He doesn’t mean it, of course. The Popeye meme is yet another gambit—another tactic pulled from the bag of Jedi mind tricks: I am a man of conviction. You do not need to see my credentials. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for ...

You gotta love Mr. Romney’s how-can-he-possibly-get-away-with-this panache. This is the same man who ran for governor of Massachusetts attacking the “Reagan-Bush” years and then ran for president attacking other Republicans for not supporting Reagan enough. The man who lectured Ted Kennedy for not being as “consistently” pro-choice as he was, who sat with his wife and talked about their mutual support for Planned Parenthood, and a decade or so later talks about abolishing that very organization and brags about his pro-life credentials. A candidate who repeatedly has been called an outright liar—or worse—by nearly every person who ever ran against him for any office, including most of the folks lathering him with accolades this week.

Like dozens if not hundreds before me, I can talk about what Mitt Romney really plans to do in his speech on Thursday night. But do I need to? It’s going to be perfectly, well, perfect: the loving tribute to his wife, Ann, who will act surprised ... the on-cue catch in his voice as he praises his deceased father, who we will be told taught young Mitt (or was he Willard then?) about hard work and consistency ... the well-practiced lines making fun of himself and attacking Obama ... the misty-eyed homage to St. Ronald of Reagan. The lines included into the speech solely to appeal to 35-50-year-old white women living in Altoona, Penn. I can talk about the “We love Mitt” signs that will be waved by the delegates—all of which were designed to look homemade, but in fact were painted and vetted by Romney campaign aides. Or the balloon drop that is also being micromanaged to precise perfection.

This is how conventions are run now, which is why they really should be compressed into one night, or maybe two. I was in the White House four years ago when President George W. Bush prepared his address to the Republican National Convention. If Bush had been left to his own devices, he undoubtedly would have had something interesting, even memorable, to say about his one-time opponent, John McCain (he once referred to the Arizonan’s campaign as “a cruel hoax”). But that was not to be: instead a bunch of his aides focused on every utterance, tested every joke, and even tried to micromanage the inflections and pauses—that is, until our notoriously impatient boss had had enough of us. The same will be done with Mitt Romney—nothing spontaneous, unusual, human, or truly authentic will be permitted to emit from his mouth and ruin things for him.

But what if it did?

In his new book on Lyndon Johnson, biographer Robert Caro notes that LBJ fared poorly when speaking from a prepared text, which made him come across as “stifled, stilted and unconvincing.” His true gift came, the author notes, when LBJ spoke from his heart—“gangling and big-eared and awkward ... with nothing to rely on but himself.”

Imagine, if you can, Mitt Romney Unleashed: freed from the endless pandering that just this week turned him into a “birther.” And then back again. Freed to say exactly what he thinks, without a teleprompter, without a speech, with “nothing to rely on but himself”:

Look, I’ve said a lot of things over the course of the campaign that I didn’t really mean. Or frankly even understand. I did it because that’s how you win a nomination these days. The two people I most respect in politics are my dad and the first George Bush. They were both moderates uncomfortable with the rightward drift of the party. Neither of them really respected President Reagan, or thought of themselves as part of some ideological movement.

I am a pragmatistthat’s how you succeed in business. I work with anyone who can help my companies succeed and turn a profit. A big profit. I really believe I can do the same thing for the American economy by finding a way to work with anybody I can to turn things around and bring profits to the Treasury. If that means raising taxes, I’ll do it if I can get away with it. Cutting spending? Well, that’s going to be too hard because the American people don’t really want them. And I want to get reelected.

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All of you who voted for me know deep down who I really am. You picked me over more conservative candidates, you ignored all of my past positions, because the professional conservatives on TV told you that I was the best person to win and more than anything you really, really want to beat the hated Barack Obama. I gave you Paul Ryan to make you happymaybe I’ll even listen to him sometimes.

So no more pandering for me. We all know what we’re doing here. Just go to your ballot box, close your eyes, and vote for me whether you like it or not. Thank you and good night.

That speech is closer to the truth than anything you’ll hear on Thursday—or the following week, when it’s the Democrats’ turn. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to enjoy the show anyway.