Mitt Romney is running a disastrous campaign and, unless he does something drastic to change direction, he will lose to Barack Obama on 6 November. Don’t take my word for it. This is Peggy Noonan, the grande dame of conservative columnists, a former Reagan speechwriter and the star turn of the relentlessly ultra-conservative op-ed pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. “There is a broad and growing feeling now, among Republicans, that this thing is slipping out of Romney’s hands,” she wrote. “It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one . . . An intervention is in order. ‘Mitt, this isn’t working.’” Returning to her theme a few days later, she apologised for saying the Romney campaign was “incompetent”. “I called it incompetent, but only because I was being polite,” she wrote. “I really meant ‘rolling calamity’.”
She is not alone. William Kristol, the cofounder of the Weekly Standard and son of Irving Kristol, the “godfather of neoconservatism”, is one of America’s most prominent conservatives. Speaking of Romney’s blithe dismissal of 47 per cent of Americans as loafers and freeloaders, Kristol declared, “Romney’s comments . . . are stupid and arrogant . . . Has there been a presidential race in modern times featuring two candidates who have done so little over their lifetimes for our country, and who have so little substance to say about the future of our country?”
David Brooks, the token conservative at the liberal New York Times, joined the chorus of disapproval. “[Romney] really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits,” he wrote. “When will the incompetence stop?”
Soon chattering-class conservatives began to eat each other. Chris Wallace, an anchor at Murdoch’s Fox News, dismissed Noonan and the rest as not really conservatives at all but “New York City’s idea of conservatives”. The vice-presidential wannabe Paul Ryan’s explanation was that “the nature of conservative punditry is to do that – to kind of complain – about any imperfection they might see”.
But proof of the widespread disenchantment with Romney’s empty campaign, his reluctance proudly to defend the untrammelled capitalism he insists is the solution to the country’s ills and his tin ear when it comes to responding to events came in the way that Republicans in tight races began to distance themselves. Among them were Senator Scott Brown, who won the traditionally Democratic Massachusetts seat of the late arch-liberal Edward Ken - nedy, the Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon, the former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle, the Virginia Senate candidate George Allen and the Nevada senator Dean Heller. As Noonan explained, “They’re starting to think Romney’s a loser and they don’t want to get loser on them.”
The ferocious friendly fire rattled Romney’s tiger wife, Ann, who appealed to her husband’s critics to “Stop it! This is hard! You want to try it? Get in the ring!” It was time, she said, for Americans to realise “how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country”.
So, what has Romney done wrong? Establishment Republicans may be in despair at his absence of charisma, his lack of passion, his failure to paint a clear picture of what it would be like to live in a Romney America, and his flip-flopping on everything from health care to abortion, from tax cuts to his own tax returns, from gays in the military to gun control. But that is the least of it.
His biggest sin in their eyes is his inability to deliver on the bargain they struck with him during the primaries. Faced with eight unelectable candidates – Snow White (Michele Bachmann) and the Seven Dwarfs (Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum and Gary Johnson) – the GOP establishment invested millions in Romney to first defeat his rivals (Gingrich, for instance, was savaged in a hugely expensive Romney TV advertising campaign), then win back the White House. And they didn’t care much how he did it.
But Romney, whose claim to the candidacy is that he knows a thing or two about running outfits such as Bain Capital and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, turns out to be a wretchedly incompetent CEO, frozen by indecision, incapable of delegation, prone to gaffes and infelicitous statements, deaf to old hands who have fought and won elections before. He is constantly wrong-footed by Obama’s nimble, ruthless, Chicago-trained campaign team.
The Republican grandees, who operate behind the scenes to override the wishes of the (in the memorably candid phrase of the GOP Speaker of the House, John Boehner) “knuckledraggers” who frighten middle-ground voters, expected Romney to trounce an unpopular president who finds himself presiding over a stagnant economy with 8.3 per cent of Americans unemployed. It should have been a push - over; instead it has become a nail-biter.
The old-school Tory Ian Gilmour used to joke that in Britain “Conservatives never panic, except in a crisis”. Well, their American counterparts are panicking right now.
So, will Mitt Romney lose? Not necessarily. Thanks to the federal constitution, the paths to the White House heavily favour Obama, and currently the swing states that decide the result are tipping towards him. There are three televised debates between now and polling day, each of which could change the game. Yet, despite all those memorable debate zingers – Ronald Reagan’s eye-rolling “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter, Lloyd Bentsen’s dismissive “I knew Jack Kennedy; you are no Jack Kennedy” to Dan Quayle – no debate upset in history has lasted more than a couple of days.
One thing seems certain, though. Romney is incapable of changing his personality, his modus operandi and his campaign staff in time to pull off a coup. Far more likely at this stage is that not only will Barack Obama keep the presidency but Democrats will keep the Senate, too. And then the battle over the future of America will begin in earnest.