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Romney’s “47 per cent” gaffe is the least of his problems

There is little evidence that Romney has the gravitas needed to speak for his country.

The American comic sage Will Rogers once joked that “a fool and his money are soon elected”. But a stack of almost $2bn in hard cash is not proving much of an asset to Mitt Romney, who emerges flustered and flailing from the convention season. If there were a postmortem on Romney’s wretched campaign so far, it would point to a plausible presidential candidate emerging from the gruelling primary race not as the party’s proud champion but as a passionless patrician incapable of harnessing the raw anger of his party’s base. The grotesque procession of debates, which attracted record ratings as a knockout reality show – American Ideologue, perhaps – left mainstream voters believing the party of Lincoln and Reagan had been hijacked by fanatical devotees of Ayn Rand and funded by the oil-pumping, billionaire, climate-change-denying Koch brothers.

The choice of the conservative and libertarian budget-trimmer Paul Ryan as his sidekick was intended to fix Romney’s credibility problem among the party’s dogmatic right – what John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the house, describes as “knuckledraggers” while signalling to middle-ground voters that Romney was serious about reducing the national debt. But Ryan’s appointment did not cause Romney’s needle to twitch.

Star turn

By the Tampa convention, instead of focusing on Romney’s vision for America, the organisers had to mount one rescue after the next. Internal rifts were papered over to keep Romney’s sore primary rivals away from the podium for fear of scaring independent voters. The sense that the mostly male Republicans want to turn back the clock on women’s issues – including the denial of the right to an abortion – led to a parade of women speakers, including the candidate’s steely wife, Ann, and a ghostly figure who Republicans had airbrushed out of history, Condoleezza Rice. Yet official party policy remains that a Republican congress will vote to outlaw all abortions, even those following a rape.

The star turn at Tampa was not Clint Eastwood, whose expletive-ridden routine left Southerners not knowing whether to clap or cringe, but Chris Christie, the obese governor of New Jersey, a gifted big-tent politician with a thundering style whose rousing endorsement of Romney was diminished by the revelation he had turned down the veep position because he believes Romney will lose.

The Democrats, meanwhile, appear unusually united. Their convention in Charlotte, South Carolina, offered few hostages to fortune. It was lit, orchestrated and meticulously choreographed like a Broadway show and gave pride of place to Bill Clinton, who charmingly picked the wings off the Republican programme. The only obvious hiccup was that following the world’s greatest retail politician on blistering form left Obama seeming ponderous and aloof. But he did seem determined to win against the odds. And he most certainly sounded presidential. The Democrats duly enjoyed a Charlotte bounce.

For Romney, the gaffes keep coming. Does he not know, or has one of his five sons not told him, that nowadays a mobile phone is also a movie camera? How else to explain his remarks caught on camera, and leaked to the liberal magazine Mother Jones, that “47 per cent” of Americans will never vote for him because they pay no tax, are dependent on the state for aid and that he has therefore abandoned all hope of reaching them? Does he not know that “paying no tax” is a charge laid against rich Republicans, including the billionaire Romney himself? His failure to release his tax returns is widely deemed evidence that he is guilty of tax evasion.

With so little time before polling day, Romney has only a couple of chances to turn back the Obama tide that is steadily rising in the key battlefield states. The first is debating Obama. Strangely, perhaps, the stilted Romney proved effective in primary debates. But next time, he will be going mano-a-mano three times with a smart Harvard lawyer newly radicalised by his failure in the past two years to find a way to make a deal with an unbending, obstructionist Republican Congress. For your diary, keep the nights of 3, 16 and 22 October free.

Wild cards

Then there are the wild cards, what American election watchers call “a November surprise”. The calendar appeared to be a little off when Libya, Sudan and Yemen erupted in violence in response to an American-made film that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad. When three American diplomats arrive home in flagdraped coffins, the president is in acute danger. Obama’s response to the Islamist attacks could prove the turning point for which Romney has been waiting.

Romney’s response, however, proved that he has yet to find a way to criticise the president in the midst of the crisis, while drawing attention to an alternative approach to events. Instead he was left condemning a dead American ambassador’s “apology”, which was hardly an apology and was issued before the attacks took place. Among other senior Republicans, a reproach came from his predecessor John Mc- Cain’s chief aide, Steve Schmidt: “. . . the Romney campaign put out a statement before the facts were in that politicised the matter and gratuitously attacked the administration for something they did not do”. Instead of putting the president under pressure, Romney gave Obama a chance to patronise him. “Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” Obama said.

Given an opportunity to show Americans his true mettle, Romney proved incapable of rising to the occasion. Instead he was left looking shallow, inexperienced and woefully partisan. It has often been said that Romney looks the part of a president, or at least looks like someone who could play a president on TV. If he is to stand any chance of defeating Obama, he must convince American voters that he is truly presidential and can speak on their behalf in times of national crisis.

There is little evidence so far that Romney has the necessary gravitas to calm and inspire his fellow countrymen and speak for the whole of the nation.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special