It’s getting to be pretty obvious that Mitt Romney has a big, big problem. Just look at the lengthy stories in Time and The New York Times Magazine. But perhaps Jonathan Chait of New York magazine captured it nicely in one pithy sentence. OK, two, for context: “It is not that Republicans won’t vote for Romney. It’s that Romney does not capture their fundamental attitude toward Obama.” That, friends, is the issue.
So I woke up asking myself: If I were Mitt, what would I do to capture that anti-Obama attitude? The answer: nothing; change the subject.
When I worked for The Guardian, before I came to Beastland, my excellent colleague Jonathan Freedland once explained to his British coworkers in my presence that he grasped American politics more intuitively than even the politics of his homeland. “Because American politics,” he said, “is all about culture. I just get it.” England has its cultural divides (our South is their North, at which the sophisticated Londoners sneer), but they’re nothing compared to ours. Our presidential elections in particular these days are basically re-prosecutions of the Civil War through other means, and in that war, Romney is on the wrong side.
Conservative anxiety about Obama is not, of course, limited to being about Obama himself, even though it is typically expressed that way (he wasn’t born here, he’s Muslim, he’s Hitler, he’s Stalin). It’s about the America he represents. An America of cities, Yankees, swells, swillers of pinot noir, readers of complicated novels and highfalutin’ magazines; and more plainly, of course, blacks, Jews, atheists, immigrants from funny or suspicious places; the kinds of people who weaken the very body of Uncle Sam. Attached to these cultural anxieties and buried within them are very real and more concrete worries, worries that are really rooted in our free-market casino capitalism but which are more easily blamed on all the foregoing groups—about jobs and wages, the future of small towns, cherished traditions, and ways of life.
All truly successful Republican politicians of the last 30 years, and even some who were only barely successful, have understood this and exploited those fears. Ronald Reagan did it comparatively jovially. George W. Bush preferred keeping his hands clean but was happy to let everyone around him do the exploiting, with Karl Rove conducting the orchestra. Dan Quayle went at Murphy Brown, and countless Senate and House candidates basically earn their keep by fulminating against the swells and the swillers.
Obama represents it all just by standing there. This is what Newt Gingrich gets, and it’s what explains his rise more than anything else. He’s been warning about these Obama-types ever since that woman in South Carolina drowned her two kids in the car in the waning days of the 1994 election and Gingrich called it evidence of a sick society that didn’t know right from wrong, all a direct result of the “Great Society, counterculture, McGovernick” legacy that the Democratic Party had forced on America. If you were surprised last year when Gingrich said Obama has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview, you have a lousy memory. He said of Bill Clinton in 1994 (in the link above) that his “core system of activity is a combination of counterculture and McGovern” (Lawd, what’s a “core system of activity”?).
How can Romney compete with that? Romney’s core system of activity is a combination of tennis club and Leverett Saltonstall. He disagrees with Obama’s politics. He even probably considers him a threat to the country in a certain kind of way—because his policies are disastrously wrongheaded. But he does not think of Obama as a mortal threat to America’s very soul. And if you’re running for the Republican nomination in 2012, that is exactly what you’re supposed to think, and you are supposed to say so, and it’s really supposed to be the emotional raison d’etre of your candidacy.
This is Romney’s biggest problem, far and away. And he can’t now just start talking about McGovernicks and Kenyans and so on, because that will be inauthentic and just make it worse. So what does he do?
Be who you are, Rick Lazio once said to me, shortly before he spent months being exactly who he was not. Lazio, you’ll recall, came in off the bench for an indifferent and prostrate-cancer stricken Rudy Giuliani in 2000 to run against Hillary Clinton. He’d built a career as a decent, affable, moderate-to-conservative guy who steered clear of the culture wars. Handler Mike Murphy quickly morphed him into a Hillary-hater, and he wore the suit horribly, and he couldn’t pull it off, and he got hammered in a state where Hillary-hating had a small-ish market share.
So Romney should say to right-wing voters, in not so many words, but in emphatic and honest words: “Look, you may not love me. Fine. We don’t have to love each other. But we have a job to do here. I’m the only guy who can do the job. Are you seriously going to send Gingrich out there? He’ll say something crazy, and more revelations will come out about his lobbying or the sources of his money, and he’ll crack up. That guy will be lucky to get McCain’s electoral votes. Don’t make this about my personality. Make it about Supreme Court judges, the kinds of people who’ll be running federal agencies, the thousands of decisions that get made by appointed bureaucrats every day that will either assist the free market or augment the power of the state.”
He is never going to be a Longstreet in our Civil War. If the voters want a Longstreet, he’s done for. He’s in a very serious pickle now and his only hope is to get GOP voters to stop fixating on their Obama anxiety, or to fixate on it in a different way, by making the case that his reelection is guaranteed if they choose someone else. Fortunately, I doubt he’s either clever or forthright enough to do any of this.