Mitt Romney looks like the kind of leader whom Hasbro might manufacture if the toy company were turning out presidents rather than GI Joes. Tall and well-coiffed with a marquee handsomeness and a sonorous voice, Romney is an action figure come to life. As the son of a presidential candidate and the possessor of two Harvard graduate degrees, he’s also got a pedigree and a résumé (as well as a tax return) to envy.
Most important, Romney has already proven his leadership chops. Whatever unpleasant things that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry might have said about Bain Capital, the fact remains: Romney is a data whiz who took a tiny start-up and turned it into a $65 billion giant that oversaw more than 100 corporate takeovers and actually did create jobs at major companies it nurtured—among them Staples, Sports Authority, and Domino’s. (Although it remains unclear whether Bain in the end destroyed more jobs than it created by taking over other businesses.) As Massachusetts governor, Romney deftly deployed both confrontation and consensus with the state’s Democrats, ultimately winning over his old 1994 Senate rival, uber-liberal Edward Kennedy (albeit in support of the “Romneycare” insurance program that he avoids discussing these days).
And now that the Republican nomination is his to lose, Romney is arguing that this is the year the man meets the moment: a historically prolonged economic crisis that only he, a business maestro, can fix. “This president wakes up every morning, looks out across America, and is proud to announce, ‘It could be worse,’ ” Romney said derisively of President Obama after winning the New Hampshire primary. “It could be worse? Is that what it means to be an American?” He may have been reading from a teleprompter, but Romney’s stinging words belied his reputation for tin-ear rhetoric; they seemed to echo the classic Ronald Reagan line that crippled Jimmy Carter in 1980: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
But looking and sounding like a leader only takes you so far. What Romney doesn’t have yet—and may not get even if he wins the White House—is a GOP base that believes in him or is even certain quite who he is and what he stands for. Many conservatives suspect that Romney, who was born in one blue state (Michigan) and made his fortune in an even bluer one (Massachusetts), is just not one of them. They see him, somewhat accurately, as a numbers-driven pragmatist who leans right but has changed positions on too many issues to be considered a true believer. On RedState, a popular tea party website, activist Dan McLaughlin wrote an elegant, much-noted essay expressing worries that a Romney nomination would mean “we would all have to make so many compromises to defend him that at the end of the day we may not even recognize ourselves. Romney has, in a career in public office of just four years (plus about eight years’ worth of campaigning), changed his position on just about every major issue you can think of, and his signature accomplishment in office was to be wrong on the largest policy issue [health care] of this campaign.”
So if Romney wins the nomination and the presidency, he will have to spend as much time wooing the mainstream of his own party as he will winning over the Democrats. He’s not alone, of course: Virtually all prominent Republicans today have been forced to play a game of breathless catch-up with a base that keeps driving itself further off the known ideological map in each election, toward more extreme and simplistic conservatism. Every Republican who has spent a decade or more in national politics, including Romney and Newt Gingrich, has had to repudiate views that the GOP once found acceptable.
Hence, in recent years Romney has reversed himself on abortion, immigration, and climate change. He has been forced to thread an intellectual camel through the eye of a needle by defending his signal political achievement, “Romneycare,” while simultaneously attacking its national analogue, “Obamacare,” as un-American. Romney’s (and Gingrich’s) support for an individual mandate to buy insurance—originally the recommendation of Stuart Butler, a health expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation—is a good example of a position that was once mainstream in the GOP but has since become heresy. Today, it is another sign of too much government intrusion in American lives. Is it any wonder that Romney often sounds tongue-tied?
So the larger question isn’t whether Romney can win the presidency. It’s whether a candidate who is partially alienated from his base can truly lead the country, or whether he will end up being led—by the base he is constantly forced to mollify. Can he be like Ronald Reagan, who kept his party marching behind him despite perceptions, by his second term, of having made serious compromises? Or will he end up more like a George H.W. Bush, who fatally offended the conservative electorate (which always mistrusted him) by raising taxes and triggering a third-party rebellion that cost him reelection? To invoke a favorite GOP talking point against Obama, will a President Romney be forced to “lead from behind”?
This article appears in the January 21, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.