CORRECTION: The original version of this article misspelled the name of author Stanley Renshon and misstated the title of his book--he wrote Barack Obama and the Politics of Redemption.
Consider, if you will, the career of a true conservative. Ronald Reagan almost always knew what to say to his base. A former Democrat who grew disaffected from the politics of Hollywood—“the only place in the country where the billionaires are liberals,” Bill Maher once cracked—Reagan had the zeal of the convert. He became a movement conservative with a knack for memorizing lines. He had “the music and the lyrics, the whole song sheet,” says Tony Dolan, Reagan’s former speechwriter, who is backing Newt Gingrich as the closest thing he can find to RR.
Reagan led the conservative movement to a rebirth after Barry Goldwater was trounced in 1964, and he did it by embracing basic truths—fewer taxes, less government, tough defense—on his own, says Martin Anderson, his former top economic aide. “He had worked out the whole philosophy himself going back to the 1960s, even the question of how you attack the Soviet Union without going to war.” Even when Reagan was accused of flip-flopping from moderate stances he took as California governor, he still “had the ability to pithily state the doctrine,” adds his biographer, Lou Cannon.
Now examine a very different kind of conservative. Mitt Romney’s conservatism, the “small c” kind, was more lived than thought out. It was not the consciously adopted theoretical construct that Reagan found. For Romney, growing up in a socially conservative Mormon home in Michigan, conservatism was part of the background, something in the air. Watching the rise of his revered father, George Romney, as a governor and then presidential candidate, Mitt was enticed by politics as a teen, but for years he would quote his dad’s advice: “Don’t get into politics as your profession.… Get into the world of the real economy. And if someday you’re able to make a contribution, do it,” according to The Real Romney, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s new book. George Romney himself took this path, running American Motors and then announcing to his family one day, “You know, I think I’m going to run for governor. Should I run as a Republican or a Democrat?”
As with his father—who walked out of the 1964 GOP convention and refused to endorse Goldwater—the younger Romney’s lack of movement credentials vexes the base today. But Mitt’s identity problem goes much deeper than George’s. Although the son is already much closer to the presidency than his father ever got, the younger Romney’s success comes at a time when the GOP electorate has veered right and vowed not to compromise. And because Romney, trying to establish some conservative bona fides, has run an ideological primary campaign to the right of his career as a numbers-crunching businessman and middle-of-the road Massachusetts governor, both moderates and those on the right are uncertain about who he really is or what he stands for. His own campaign has internalized the identity crisis: On CNN this week, Romney’s communications director compared his fall campaign strategy to resetting an Etch A Sketch.
Uncertainty is not a ticket to the White House, that much is clear. Yet voters today can’t really know whether they’re pulling the lever for the pragmatist or the newly minted ideologue. Romney needs to persuade conservatives—some of them, anyway—to win the Republican nomination, and then independents and centrists to win in November. Is that even possible, considering that Romney may now have the worst favorability rating in presidential-election history, according to Newsweek?
Many people say that Mitt Romney is hard to know personally—stiff and removed, in a patrician way. But Romney’s awkwardness may also be evidence of internal conflict and self-alienation: He is a man who has been forced to behave in a way foreign to his true self, according to some analysts. “He is twisting himself into a pretzel,” says the presidential historian Robert Dallek, who trained as a psychoanalyst. It’s no surprise, really, that Romney looks so uncomfortable on the campaign trail, insisting that he is “severely conservative.”
His natural confidence (he was a golden boy his whole life) is gone, and he looks like a man responding to signals from voters, rather than leading them in Reagan-like fashion. One recent example: Even after briefly finding the courage to insist he would not “set my hair on fire” and adopt extremist rhetoric, Romney quailed at the idea of criticizing Rush Limbaugh for referring to a Georgetown Law student as a “slut.” “Those would not have been the words I would have used,” Romney said.
It was not exactly a Sister Souljah moment. But Romney may need such a self-defining moment, or a series of them—when he honestly tells the country what he really believes, even if it offends the Right—if he wants Americans to know whom they’re voting for.
A GOVERNOR’S EDUCATION
After his stints as a Mormon missionary in France and an undergrad at Stanford and Brigham Young, Romney got a Harvard law degree at the urging of his father, by then a Cabinet secretary and a vociferous symbol of the very GOP centrism that the Goldwater/Reagan movement rose up against. But what he mostly wanted was to plunge into the heart of capitalism. Two decades of phenomenally successful data wizardry at Bain Capital followed, turning him into a fiscally conservative pragmatist.
This was the philosophy that Romney applied to restoring a scandal-plagued Olympics to respectability. Then he got a job in Massachusetts—the governorship—that required a lot of pragmatism, and he succeeded brilliantly. Jon Gruber, a health care economist at MIT who advised Romney on his signature achievement, a revolutionary health care law, remembers being so blown away by the new governor’s ability that Gruber, a liberal Democrat, felt “scared shitless” at Romney’s prospects as an emerging GOP national figure. “I thought, ‘This is a man I could vote for as president,’ ” Gruber says.
When Gruber, using computer models, showed Romney that without an individual mandate one-third of Massachusetts’ poorest and sickest would remain uninsured (and drive up costs for everyone), data-whiz Mitt jumped on the point, instantly converted. Romney went at the problem “like a management consultant or an engineer” with no ideological taint, even against the advice of his conservative political advisers, Gruber says. “They were concerned about the politics of universal health care. He argued them down.”
As a presidential candidate, Romney likes to say he balanced the state budget without raising taxes. But he made practical concessions, boosting fees on financial-services and auto-insurance companies, closing corporate loopholes, and increasing the state and local tax burden. The Romney administration won praise from environmentalists for backing renewable energy, asking his environment agency for a climate-change plan, and supporting regulations that capped pollution from coal plants. (Two of his gubernatorial advisers are now top Obama officials: John Holdren, the administration’s science czar, and Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s senior air-pollution official.) The governor also supported his state’s strict gun-control measures and signed a tough assault-weapons law.
But while Romney was applying a career’s worth of analytical savvy, layered with social and fiscal conservatism, in Massachusetts, the Republican Party elsewhere was lurching rightward. Ideologically, it was already well beyond where Reagan had been. In 2008, running for the nomination against John McCain, Romney was still passing muster with the base. This was before the revolt against Big Government spending turned into a tea party conflagration.
As a result, Romney has felt daily pressure to repudiate old positions now deemed too centrist on a wide range of issues from health care to immigration—a strategy he might have to reverse on some issues if he wants to beat President Obama. It is not so much flip-flopping as an abrupt embrace of extreme views across domestic and foreign policy that could land him in trouble. He seems to have unmoored himself for the sake of victory. Intended to please the base, his declarations have succeeded mainly in alienating the center.
RISE OF AN IDEOLOGUE
To understand the quandary of Being Mitt Romney, it’s important to understand the evolution of the Republican Party. Since Reagan, the axis has moved: If under Bill Clinton, Democrats became fiscal conservatives and tried to occupy the political center, Republicans had to distinguish themselves by moving rightward and elevating supply-side economics to orthodoxy. One by one, Republican centrists have come to realize they are, in effect, a virtually extinct political class. Leading Republicans who failed to adjust quickly found themselves marginalized; even Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who only a decade ago was a (relative) conservative, faces a serious primary challenge from a tea party insurgent. As the meaning of conservatism changes, Republicans are finding that they must pick ever-more-simplistic champions. So it is no surprise that the party stopped identifying with brilliant pragmatists like Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, and Dwight Eisenhower and took up with ideologues like Rick Santorum. Romney hardly has a place in this party.
Ironically, after his first failed bid for the GOP nomination in 2008, Romney closely analyzed his campaign and concluded “that his major mistake in 2008 had been quite simple: He had failed to get across what he was really all about, a problem he had also identified after his 1994 Senate race. Once again, he had lacked definition,” write Kranish and Helman, two Boston Globe reporters. Accordingly, Romney has tried to define himself this year by viciously attacking Obama: He’s weak, he’s incompetent, he’s a European socialist (though the Europeans are now pursuing austerity). The attacks have been so over the top that they make Romney look almost desperate to distinguish himself from another pragmatist that he may resemble far too much—Barack Obama.
“There is a total disconnect between who Romney was in Massachusetts and what we’re seeing now,” says Gruber, who remembers he was so impressed with Romney that “I said after he began running that I wasn’t going to say anything negative about him because I had so much respect for him. But I had to break that vow. I couldn’t vote for him now.” Romney’s effort to defend his Massachusetts health care law as a model while attacking the national version (modeled on “Romneycare”) is “completely disingenuous,” Gruber says. Massachusetts could devise its health care law only because it had a $385 million Medicaid grant that it had to use to care for the poor. “He says the states could do it but not the federal government. Well, actually, the states can’t do it [because most don’t have that grant],” Gruber says. “What he should be saying is that he’ll give the states a trillion dollars to come up with their own plans, but he’s not going to do that.”
Romney has assembled prominent advisers, but he now adopts views that even they are uncomfortable with. He calls Obama a dangerously weak president abroad, but Robert Kagan, his neoconservative foreign-affairs adviser, has indicated he’s comfortable with much of Obama’s program (the president has adopted the thesis of Kagan’s latest book, The World America Made). Romney has also come close to calling for war with Iran, decried Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq and his “massive defense cuts,” and opposed negotiating with the Taliban—all of which suggests that a President Romney would be another first-term George W. Bush.
Romney pledges to designate China as a currency manipulator and slap on tariffs—ensuring a trade war—“on day one of my presidency.” He opposes government help for housing, even though one of his chief advisers, Glenn Hubbard, has written an ambitious plan to reduce interest rates on mortgages. “It’s fine academic work, but it’s not anything that anyone [on the right] could touch,” says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain’s adviser in 2008, explaining that the tea party was ignited by a rant by CNBC’s Rick Santelli against bailing out mortgage holders. “No element of it is politically feasible.”
And the primary race is still impelling Romney further from his gut instincts. Asked whether he would fight Obama’s contraceptive insurance mandate, he first said, “The idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife, I’m not going there.” An hour later, he went there. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul “clarified” his answer, claiming “The way the question was asked was confusing. Governor Romney supports the Blunt bill [repealing Obama’s rule] because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care.”
Likewise, he was kibitzing at a New Hampshire campaign event when he told a voter that he wants the minimum wage tied roughly to inflation. It was smart politics for a rich candidate who has been portrayed as failing to understand the poor. But when conservatives Rush Limbaugh and Larry Kudlow hammered him for “a policy that would make it more expensive to hire people,” in the words of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, he backpedaled. First he said he had vetoed a proposed minimum-wage hike as governor; then he said that inflation today “would tell you that right now there’s probably not a need to raise the minimum wage.”
If Romney wins the nomination, he’ll have to appeal to the middle again, which could mean moderate views on immigration, war with Iran, taxes, or non-negotiation with the Taliban. (Would that make him a flip-flip-flopper?) The Obama campaign is already readying an ad blitz on this score that will make Bush’s 2004 attacks on John Kerry look meek, according to officials familiar with the strategy who asked not to be named.
Yet even as Romney hopes to appeal to the center, the Republican voters in the process of nominating him will not let him off the hook. The GOP is no longer a party around which the rank and file dutifully rally. Already, conservatives parse his language tirelessly. Romney’s profession that he is a “severe conservative” might have been an unnoticed solecism in any other candidate. But to Richard Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, it was another sign that “he can mouth the words conservatives use, but he has no gut-level emotional connection with the conservative movement and its ideas and policies.”
So Romney, as the nominee, would have to fight a rearguard action while the Obama machine blitzes him frontally and centrists question his sincerity. His electoral results so far offer a glimpse at the problem. Take Ohio, a state that historically has been crucial to the success of any Republican candidate. Romney eked out a 1 percent plurality over Santorum only by taking the big urban and suburban centers—Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus—that traditionally vote Democratic. He lost most of the traditional Republican districts and 69 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Even in relatively moderate Virginia, Romney’s only opponent, Ron Paul, got 40 percent of the vote. Never mind what happened farther South and in the West, where (except for Idaho) the GOP base overwhelmingly rejects Romney.
But let’s say that Romney pulls it off and wins the election. Whom do we end up with? Both Republicans and Democrats who have known Romney for years say that the candidate of 2012 is all but unrecognizable. “I don’t know who he is or what he stands for,” says one senior Republican adviser who is old enough to have known Romney’s father and compares the son unfavorably. Gruber believes that Romney has already become someone else, perhaps a hybrid: “I don’t think we’re going to get the old Mitt Romney back,” he says.
Obama offers a case study in the difference between ideological expectations and a governing reality. The dynamic is almost the opposite of what it is with Romney and the GOP: Whereas Romney has trouble persuading his base no matter what he says, Obama persuaded his base far too easily, with just a few rhetorical sprinklings of Shepard Fairey dust. Partly because of who he was (the first African-American nominee, and one with an exotic name and inspirational speaking style), Obama fed the progressive imagination like no candidate in memory. So the warning signs of what came to define his presidency—centrism and pragmatism—were missed.
What are we missing about Romney? Of course many candidates (and presidents) have two or more personas. Franklin Roosevelt shifted position so often that his rival Herbert Hoover “called him a chameleon on plaid,” Dallek says. Eisenhower ran to the right in 1952, calling for a “rollback” of the Soviets, then upon taking office embraced Truman-style containment and secretly ridiculed the McCarthyite “primitives” even as he pandered to them. John Kennedy was a public hero and private libertine. Nixon was the wise grand strategist for the history books and, behind closed doors, a panicked paranoiac. George H.W. Bush did “a 180 on abortion and voodoo economics,” embracing Reaganite views on abortion as well as supply-side theories that he had previously repudiated, says David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers and the author of Nixon’s Shadow. “It was completely expedient.”
Romney’s defenders say that the issue of what he stands for is exaggerated. “People do in fact grow and change,” says Holtz-Eakin. “The most particular example of that is Ronald Reagan. He raised taxes on individual income in California and supported abortion rights—and became a very different president.”
But Reagan had mastered that conservative song sheet. And he led, rather than followed, the party. The dual-personality problem has never played out so publicly as it has with Romney. Dallek agrees: “All politicians, if they’re successful, have some element of opportunism and pragmatism. But this seems particularly pronounced.… Partly what makes it so pronounced is the extent to which there is 24-7 media coverage.”
The upshot is that a Romney presidency would almost certainly begin in confusion. Newly elected presidents do try to fulfill their campaign promises, but there’s not much he could do to end Iran’s nuclear program; a trade war with China would be unpopular and self-defeating; and he couldn’t tackle the deficit without raising revenue. Which means that he could find himself besieged by critics on both the left and the right.
Still, even skeptics think that Romney could be an effective president if he finds a way through this minefield of muddled self-identification. “Whereas Obama sees himself as a very transformational figure, Romney is not looking for a spot on Mount Rushmore,” says Stanley Renshon, a psychoanalyst who recently published Barack Obama and the Politics of Redemption. “He’s just looking to do well by the American people.” Dallek, along with other historians, points out that very few presidents follow a set ideological agenda. FDR made up the New Deal as he went along. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” played out similarly. Another prominent historian, the late Arthur Schlesinger, liked to tell the story of his recruitment. Shortly after his inauguration, Kennedy called Schlesinger and offered him a job at the White House. “What will I be doing there?” Schlesinger asked JFK. “I don’t know,” Kennedy responded. “I don’t even know what I’ll be doing there.”
Kennedy also had to repudiate hard-line views that he campaigned on, such as the “missile gap” with the Soviets that didn’t really exist. But unless Mitt Romney learns how to tell people now who he really is—whoever he really is—he’s unlikely to get a chance to prove just how he might govern.
This article appears in the March 24, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.