Romney's self-esteem issues

Every time there's a big win, the Republican frontrunner counterbalances it with self-inflicted woun

One step forward, two steps back -- that's the Mitt Romney way. The runner-up to the 2008 nomination looks like he's going to be the belle of the ball this year with the endorsements (or just kind words) from a passel of heavies in the Republican Party, including former President George H.W. Bush and Mark Rubio, the Senator from Florida and darling of the Tea Party who is rumored to be gunning for a tap as VP.

Romney's opponents are falling by the wayside, too. Newt Gingrich's staff has quit. He's in hock for a cool million. His billionaire backer says he can't win. Rick Santorum, not long after suggesting -- by accident, but still -- that voting for President Obama would be better than voting for Romney, is finally watering down his bile. He's campaigning on the cheap, he's polling behind Romney in his home state of Pennsylvania, and besides, he needs to avoid looking like a spoiler. And Ron Paul ... well, most of us forgot he was running.

Even as he lost to Santorum in the last primary in Louisiana, Romney was winning, and will win ultimately. The rest of the primary season -- in big states like New York, Wisconsin and California -- look more like gravy. And that was to be expected. Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and other books on conservative political history, has said for all the drama of the nomination, its ending has been predictable. Democrats fall in love with candidates, Perlstein said, while Republicans fall in line. Forget about insurrections -- much less the laughable notion of class warfare! -- within the GOP. Romney was the second in line in 2008. To the Republican Party bosses, that makes him the Anointed One.

But remember those two steps back? Even as Romney was finally getting made, he was getting played -- by Mitt Romney. During a conference call with Wisconsin supporters, Romney recalled a funny story about his dad, George Romney, the head of American Motors, closing a plant in Michigan:

"Now later he decided to run for governor of Michigan, and so you can imagine that having closed the factory and moved all the production to Wisconsin was a very sensitive issue to him, for his campaign," explained Romney, who described a subsequent campaign parade in which the school band marching with his father knew how to play Wisconsin's fight song, but not Michigan's.

"Every time they would start playing 'On Wisconsin, On Wisconsin,' my dad's political people would jump up and down and try to get them to stop, because they didn't want people in Michigan to be reminded that my dad had moved production to Wisconsin," said Romney, laughing.

You'll notice a pattern. Romney seems to have a self-esteem issue; every time there's a big win -- in delegates or endorsements -- Romney and his people have to counterbalance that with self-inflicted wounds. Recall the poor people statement after Florida and the Etch-a-Sketch statement after Illinois. Now, Romney chuckles reminiscing about Dad the Job-Killer.

Perhaps this was also to be expected. George Romney wanted to be president and he, too, had a way of making an art out of self-sabotage. Romney was a popular and highly respected politician and businessman (his face was on the cover of Time; he championed automotive fuel-efficiency in the 1950s). But the principal issue of the 1968 election was Vietnam. In The Boys on the Bus, his classic study of electoral politics and the press, Timothy Crouse wrote that Romney was the kind of candidate ideal for arousing the pack mentality of campaign reporters.

The more they hounded him with questions about Vietnam, the more flustered Romney became, and the more flustered he became, the more savagely the press treated him. Their animosity reached its zenith when Romney returned from a trip to Indo-China and said that he experienced "the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam."

What he meant was that the American military tried to snow him with propaganda, but his eyes were telling a different story, and our misadventure there was doomed. Even so, the press stopped listening after "brainwashing." One is tempted to blame the media for blowing up a small thing, but one is also tempted to blame the candidate for disrespecting the myopia and narcissism endemic to American political journalism.

"The 'brainwashing' remark encapsulated all of Romney's ineptness in one easily remembered word," Crouse wrote, "and it finished off his chances."

As November draws near, you can imagine what's going to happen. We live in a post-Citizens United world. The airwaves will be filled with Romney gaffes, innocently intended, brutally exploited. History indeed repeats itself, but for Romney, that might go double.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit