Mitt Romney is, once again, playing a dangerous game, not unlike what his father, George, engaged in 45 years ago after the latter’s notorious admission that he’d suffered a “brainwashing” about Vietnam. Like the father, the son is standing by the substance of his words, even when they invite howls of hostility. As Theodore H. White recorded in The Making of the President 1968, George Romney would have been wise to merely acknowledge a misstatement when he made a “toss-away” remark about Vietnam and let the matter drop, but “his pride was involved and he felt he was being abused.” So George Romney kept jumping to answer charges of incompetence and naivete until, in the end, he destroyed his candidacy, “leaving behind the impression of an honest and decent man simply not cut out to be president,” White wrote. “Romney could not win with the press.”
Mitt Romney isn’t winning either, with his conservative allies in the media who have been lambasting him lately as much as the liberals. But there does seem to be a pattern emerging here: Romney just doesn’t back down, even when perhaps he should for political reasons, apparently because he actually, and proudly, believes in what he said. Something similar occurred last week, when Romney stood by remarks accusing the Obama administration of “apologizing” for American values long after it became clear that he had spoken too soon about what happened in Libya.
All of which is helping to fill in the still-substantial blanks about one of the central questions hanging over this campaign: Who is Mitt Romney really? For years, his conservatism has been questioned. During the GOP primaries in February, after Romney protested to CPAC that he was “severely conservative,” Rush Limbaugh labeled the line a “pander.” "I have never heard anybody say, 'I'm severely conservative,' " Limbaugh shouted on his show. As recently as Tuesday, Rich Lowry of the National Review also cast Romney as a parrot, writing dismissively of the GOP nominee’s recent comment at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the country didn't pay income tax and wanted government handouts: “The overall impression of Romney at this event is of someone who overheard some conservative cocktail chatter and maybe read a conservative blog or two, and is thoughtlessly repeating back what he heard and read.”
Umm, can we cut the guy some slack already? He’s not an idiot, and he’s certainly no parrot. Romney holds two graduate degrees from Harvard; he was a brilliant businessman who made Bain Capital a $65 billion giant, turned around the Olympics, and hired the best tax accountants in town. Perhaps Romney really is just as “severely conservative” as he’s been telling us. If Mitt is as much of a fumble-mouth as his dad was, he’s no less sincere.
Maybe Romney really does believe that a huge portion of the American public are irresponsible dependents or freeloaders. Maybe his choice of Paul Ryan for veep was not political opportunism or another cave to the conservative base, but the act of a true believer who buys fully into the tea party/Ayn Randian view—now dominant in the GOP—that government entitlements are out of control. And maybe the middle-of-the-road pragmatism that Romney occasionally showed as governor of Massachusetts was the aberration—forced on him by politics in that bluest of states, and from which he ran as soon as he could—and not the real Romney at all.
Hence, in his interview on Fox on Tuesday, rather than repudiating a series of comments that even fellow Republicans are urging him to renounce, Romney sought to justify and reaffirm the main thrust of them. "Those who are dependent on government and those who believe in redistribution, they're not going to vote for me," he said again. Romney thus appeared to effectively eliminate most of America—even the many businessmen who get tax breaks and government grants—from his voter base.
We may now be watching one of the most conservative presidential candidates since Barry Goldwater in action, rather than the pseudo-conservative we thought we were getting. Perhaps what was most striking about Romney’s remarks at that Florida fundraiser was the total absence of what George W. Bush once touted (successfully, at the time) as “compassionate conservatism,” and his obvious disdain for anyone with need of government help of any kind as someone devoid of “personal responsibility.” Indeed, one could draw a straight line from those off-the-cuff comments to Romney’s uninspiring (and apparently personally rewritten) acceptance speech in Tampa, when he tossed off a few lines about lifting up all Americans, but none seemed very deeply felt. Even Ryan, the youthful erstwhile Rand devotee of the slash-the-safety-net budget, got off a more memorable line in his own acceptance speech about how "the truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.”
Mitt Romney, like his father, may not have a winning strategy here, not when his views are so “small and pinched and narrow,” as Peggy Noonan has put it. But we're certainly getting to know him better.