Mitt Romney’s big problem isn’t Trump or Obama, it’s Mitt Romney

Flip-flopping is deemed a mortal sin in American politics.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney speaks to members of the press aboard his campaign plane. Photograph: Getty Images.

It is not easy to feel sorry for Mitt Romney. Like David Cameron and George Osborne, he looks too comfortably well off, his skin too shiny
and tanned, his hair too expensively cut, his jeans too well pressed. He estimates his personal wealth at somewhere between $210m and $250m. When you don’t know how rich you are to the nearest $40m, it must be hard to relate to people who know exactly how little there is in their pay packets.

The presidential race has entered the long, sleepy summer season in which nothing much gets done, which will end on Labor Day, 3 September. The nitty-gritty of the campaigns, such as Romney picking a running mate, will only be dealt with when everyone has shaken the sand out of their loafers.

Until then, the two sides are concentrating on setting the stage with a big theme, saving the full barrage of smaller skirmishes for the autumn. For Romney, that means priming voters to ask themselves whether they are better off than they were four years ago. For Obama, it means painting Romney as a fraud when it comes to claiming the ability to create jobs.

Obama’s people have already begun to sow seeds of doubt about Romney’s boast that because he made himself a fortune at the asset-strippers Bain Capital he understands how the US economy works. They have paraded people thrown out of work by Bain and companies that went bust after being burdened with too much debt by Bain.

Friendly fire

Obama has benefited from ammunition kindly provided by Romney’s Republican rivals. “The Bain model is to go in at a very low price, borrow an immense amount of money, pay Bain an immense amount of money and leave,” said Newt Gingrich in January. “I think that’s exploitation.” “There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business,” said Rick Perry. “I happen to think that that is indefensible.”

But painting Romney as Gordon Gekko has proved costly to Obama, who relies for funds on friendly Wall Street types who take exception to being painted as unfeeling, self-serving crooks. Popular Democrats like Bill Clinton, Steve Rattner, the architect of the successful motor industry bailout, the former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr; and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, broke ranks, saying they couldn’t blanket condemn venture capitalists, who serve a purpose by refreshing companies in decline.

Romney, too, has problems with his supporters. It was bad enough that Donald Trump, with his absurd Arthur Scargill combover, hijacked his endorsement by maintaining the lie that Obama wasn’t born in the US. The persistence of the “birther” movement is undermining the claim that Romney leads a level-headed party. He faces similar embarrassment by depending on billionaire backers such as the Koch brothers, oil magnates who fund dodgy science about climate change. Mixing with deluded people can frighten off rational independent voters.

Because the super-PACs that the Kochs and others fund may not legally confer with Romney’s official campaign, they may do more harm than good. One group wants to revisit Obama’s friendship with the white-hating pastor Jeremiah Wright, but such race-baiting may end
up driving Obama’s jaded African-American supporters to the polls.

Yet Romney’s biggest problem is himself. He cannot keep his mouth zipped. So far this has led him to blurt, “I like being able to fire people”, “I’m not concerned about the very poor”, “Corporations are people”, and to confide that his wife, Ann, “drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually”. Then there was his $10,000 bet with Perry, which confirms that Mitt the poor little rich boy hasn’t a clue about the household bud­gets of ordinary folk.

The great unknown is whether Romney’s Mormon faith will prove a deal-breaker with the American people. Romney was a bishop in the male-dominated Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when he advised a woman to put her illegitimate child up for adoption or leave the Church. Its peculiar rites, such as the sacred long johns that members wear, and its offensive beliefs about people of colour, have yet to be addressed by Romney, who says he has no intention of speaking about his religion.

Rowing back

The legend is that John Maynard Keynes said, “When circumstances change, I change my mind. And what do you do, sir?” But, as John Kerry found, flip-flopping is deemed a mortal sin in American politics, where soundbites do not allow any time to explain how you can be for the Iraq war one day and against it the next. Yet if Romney wants to attract moderate voters over the summer he is going to have to row slyly back from the extreme positions he adopted to trounce his Republican rivals.

To see off Perry, he became an anti-immigrant hardliner, a position that made him a hate figure among Hispanics, a demographic increasingly crucial to winning swing states. To fend off Gingrich he agreed to slash the federal bud­get, though Romney has since said he won’t agree to deep cuts until there is a recovery, which has elicited accusations from fiscal conservatives that he is a closet Keynesian.

To defeat Rick Santorum, he ended up opposing abortion, and even contraception, setting off what Democrats gleefully named “the war on women”. Above all, Romney has yet to find an answer to the question at the core of his campaign: why he thinks the health insurance mandate he introduced in Massachusetts was good when he says Obama’s identical programme, which his reforms inspired, will ruin America.

Even if Romney always intended to wipe the slate clean as if it were an Etch a Sketch, as a top aide so candidly acknowledged back in March, each U-turn will cost him dear, and not onlyin gibes from his enemies about flip-flops but among the ultra-conservatives he must keep sweet. Romney may be famously flexible, but he is going to have to perfect the triple back somersault to Olympic standard if he is to have a chance of winning in November.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£18.99)