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.


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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.