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.