So far Mitt Romney has lost two out of three primaries, twice to candidates that the establishment didn't even feel were worthy of their attention. In his biggest victory in New Hampshire he barely managed to take 40 percent of the vote.
Winning may be everything, but to win a battle you have to remember what it is that you are fighting for. If we are out to win, then what do we win with Romney? Hopefully we win four years of Obama not being in office. That's a pretty solid prize right there and people will turn out for it, but is it enough to win in order to win? And can we win by fielding a candidate who exists only to win?
As the ugly parade of accusations winds its way down Main Street in a ticker tape parade of SuperPAC ads and smears, the ideas have mostly been lost in a clash of personalities. The overriding impression of the campaign is of a few angry men locked together in a room and trying to undermine each other when they aren't outright berating each other. Non-issues rule the day. Tax returns, college records, affairs and anything that avoids dealing with the economic meltdown.
The hostages here are Republican voters who are once again told to choose between professional politicians who have spent so much time tearing down each other that all of them look bad in one way or another. If you believe the various supporters of one candidate or another, then their opponents are Communist supporters of big government who are mentally unstable and given to kicking guinea pigs around the house.
Romney was the establishment's choice for them. He still is. And he's still the candidate that voters are uncomfortable with because he appears to stand for nothing. The more he smiles and the better his hair looks, the more you wonder who is this man on stage. Does he have any purpose besides touring the country, ruffling the hair of nearby youngsters and commenting awkwardly on the economy?
Even Huntsman managed to convincingly believe in something, even if that something was that his party needed to be more like the Democrats. Throughout this season we have had a parade of candidates who seemed to compellingly believe in something. Romney is the exception. It's not just his flip flops, few professional politicians have gone more than a few years without changing some political positions. It's that cheerful vacuum that he projects into the television screen, the event horizon of a politician surrounding a gaping black hole.
Romney must believe something, but it's hard to say what. His career is that of a salesman pitching a product. The products have gotten more and more upscale and the sales pitch is aggressive, but what does the product actually do? We don't really know. It looks good, it's very salable, but what is it for besides winning elections?
The biggest advantage that Romney brings to the ticket is the lack of a personality. That is what makes him electable in a general election. Not because he has any real depth of appeal, but because he will seem like a safe bet for a country that wants change, but is less eager to commit to radical change this time around. But that is also what makes him so unappealing in primary elections that appeal to voters who actually want a candidate to stand for something.
It's as if Romney has spent so much time perfecting his persona, from his missionary days to his political and corporate period, that he projects a perfectly seamless and shiny outer shell, but without the passion and personality that would make him seem human. That would make us believe that he is more than a political machine in human form desperately seeking to get elected.
There's no doubt that there is an inner Romney, but it's more doubtful whether that inner Romney really cares about issues. Romney's career has been post-ideological, which may not be such a bad thing, except that what it really means is that he is a great compromiser and his compromises in the past have trended to the left.
Huntsman believed that the Republican Party was wrong and was man enough to go out there and say it. Romney wouldn't say it even if he did believe it, but it's doubtful that he believes it. Romney does not appear to think about issues in terms of political positions, only in problem solving terms. And that's not nearly as good as it sounds. What it means is that if voters want gay rights, then he will fight for gay rights. If global warming seems to be a concern, then he will work out a way to reduce carbon emissions without impacting business too much. If guns are an issue, then he will work together with gun control and gun rights advocates to draw up another compromise which may undermine the Second Amendment, but does solve the "problem".
The problem with Republican politicians like this is that they fail to consider who is framing the terms of the problem. Instead they are too busy solving manufactured problems while frowning impatiently at conservatives who stand in the way of the problem being solved.
If America's problems were only those of mismanagement, then Mitt might be the guy. But the mismanagement is ideological and the massive national debt is the result of too many compromises and backroom deals between the ideologically corrupt and the just plain corrupt. Anyone who recognizes that feels an instinctive antipathy to those politicians who just don't get it. And they see Romney not as the King of Bain, but as the king of those who don't get it.
Romney doesn't understand why he is hated, either by his opponents or by many of the voters. Like most reasonable but clueless people, he knows that he is the adult in the room because he is the one speaking calmly, dressing professionally and following the right procedures to move forward. He has done everything he was supposed to and appears alternately frustrated and bemused to see the primaries slipping away from him.
The problem is that Romney doesn't understand. He doesn't understand why you don't try to clumsily empathize with things you can't relate to, or why his association with the establishment has made his already toxic image even more toxic. His air of competence belies a supreme cluelessness to the currents around him.
Romney is an excellent salesman, but people have an instinctive dislike of salesman, of a slickness that is too slick, a patter that is too good and a willingness to say anything that will make the sale. In art it is often the blotch, the mar and the smear that lends a piece its depth and authenticity. Perfect pieces are a dime a dozen, it's the imperfections that make it seem real.
Gingrich's imperfections, his ego and his bellicosity, lend him an authenticity that Romney can't have. Equally Santorum's nerdiness makes him seem real in a way that Romney can never be. The issue isn't class. It's just the wrong time for salesmen, especially when the salesman looks like the representative of an equally clueless establishment that many voters blame for the existing state of affairs.
Underneath Romney's poise a sense of hurt and frustration seems to bleed through. The angst of a man who has a ragged copy of How To Win Friends and Influence People under the pillow, who practices his smiles in front of a mirror and has learned all the habits of highly effective people by rote, but who cannot understand why the other kids don't want to play with him at recess.
To the establishment Mitt is perfect for the same reasons that he is toxic to the base. His blandness means that he has no threatening ideas. His flexibility will allow him to adopt any position and his post-ideological thinking will mean no difficulties with switching gears. Best of all he looks the part. After a series of problematic candidates, he is perfect. Perfectly unobjectionable.
And they might be right. Romney might be the most electable of the bunch. Maybe he is the only one who can win. Most of us have had thoughts like that, but even if we have to settle for the Prius of politicians, voters are still interested in test driving something big and mean which spews up a lot of smoke and scares everyone off the street. Or maybe a classic model which might look silly today but reminds us of the America that used to be, the America of the sweater vest, the traditional family and the pipe, rather than the America where we settle for the Prius and try to make it to the cash register without having to hear another Lady Gaga song.
Romney doesn't do the vision thing. And maybe he doesn't need to win an election. But then again maybe a candidate without a vision is too plastic to do more than recite bland slogans and stand out there like a wax mannequin waiting for someone to take a photo with him. If his backers were honest, they would strip out all the stuff about his opponents being Communists and focus only on his electability. After South Carolina, that seems to be the way they are headed.
If Romney largely keeps his image intact, he may win the general election. But how well will he actually do under the sustained fire of the media establishment, its comedian flunkies and all the hate and hostility of a liberal establishment with a white knuckled grip on power? It might be wiser to look at survivors, at two opponents who have survived and won when they weren't supposed to. Who have stood up and beaten back their own local establishment.
This election will be a hard and ugly fight. And Romney may be the most electable robot for the job, but if we're going down a hard road maybe it's best we take a car that can handle the roads and leave the Prius at home.