As he finally claims the nomination that was his all along, but which was so reluctantly yielded to him, Mitt Romney enters his Etch A Sketch period. He may twist the knobs to try and shift his professed beliefs as easily as the aluminum granules on the screen of one of the last century's most famous toys. But it's hard for the epic flip-flopper to reframe himself again — or it should be.
Romney is only doing what comes naturally to a man who once said he was "better" on gay rights than Ted Kennedy, but then later donated $25,000 to the homophobic National Organization For Marriage — through a conduit that was designed to hide his contribution. Romney's public life across two decades has been a ceaselessly revised Etch A Sketch.
For the moment, the conventional wisdom seems to hold that after all the pandering of the primaries, where he saw nothing at all wrong with all that the right-wing demanded, he can "incrementally adjust... course toward the middle." That's the verdict of former New York Times editor Bill Keller in a recent column. Keller is not alone; outlets from Politico to the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times have covered the shape-shifting. Much as General Motors, or his father's company American Motors, offered an updated model each year, here comes the Romney redesign for the general election.
Mitt tries to keep his true self concealed on canvas in an attic while he offers a false face to the world.
Some analysts assess it as an easier maneuver than others do. The Keller piece made the strongest case; I just think it happens to be wrong. For example, Keller concedes that Romney would pack the Supreme Court with right-wing, anti-abortion justices, but argues that's not an "election-altering" issue. Ask women voters, with whom Romney now faces not a gender gap, but a gender chasm. And Keller even describes Romney as "analytical, pragmatic, upbeat … promising to transcend dogma and to get things working again." Did he miss the primaries — or does he assume that for Romney, they were just a long trail of lies?
Of course, I can't be certain that Keller's judgment of the candidate himself is wholly inaccurate: Who knows who the real Romney is, the hardline metronome who follows every conservative beat, or the Massachusetts moderate who had to connive his path through the winter and spring? The latter view is what consoles mainstream observers and non-ideologues; a friend of Romney's once assured me that he doesn't believe the stuff he's saying.
That's supposed to be comforting, but it's cynical and discomforting, too.
First, it raises a basic question of character. All politicians adjust to circumstance, but most don't trade in their core convictions. Romney comes across as a puppet of circumstance — and integrity and authenticity count in the choosing of a president.
Second, a two-step toward the middle is daunting for someone whose feet are not only frequently in his mouth, but firmly trapped in the cement of the unpalatable stances he's already taken to procure the nomination. For example, Romney has an election-killing weakness with Latinos. A Republican needs 40 percent or more of the Latino vote for a realistic chance at the White House; Romney's at 14 percent. So the candidate now says he's ready to support a dimestore version of the DREAM Act: Crafted by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, it won't do what the real DREAM Act does, provide a path to citizenship. How will that placate Latinos — or even more, prompt them to desert President Obama, who's committed to far-reaching immigration reform in a second term?
Romney, who has fellow-travelled with the merchants of anti-immigrant bigotry and offered some uncharacteristic nasty rhetoric of his own, piously proclaims now that the GOP has to reach out to Latinos. To recycle his own phrase, he'd probably be better off if he could persuade them to "self-deport" from the ballot box.
Romney has also lashed himself to the fiercely unpopular, Medicare-killing budget of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.); the move was a sine qua non for Tea Partiers who pervade the GOP primaries. Next, some Republicans want their nominee to bind himself even more tightly to Ryan as his running mate. I'm for that, but don't bet on it. Why would Romney add one self-inflicted injury to another? And the Ryan plan is wounding. It would end the Medicare guarantee, voucherize the program, explode costs for seniors, and subject them to the callous mercies of the insurance industry. The plan would destroy 1.3 million jobs in 2013 and 2.8 million in 2014, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And Ryan would gut areas like college aid to shower the wealthy with more tax cuts.
As Romney would say, it's a "marvelously" Republican idea — and he will hear far more about it in the months ahead. The words won't be kind to him — and they will cut through to voters. It will be interesting to watch him squirm away here, or enjoyable for Democrats if he decides to double down.
Third, just as Romney was redialing his Etch A Sketch, his hand slipped during a private fundraiser in Palm Beach. Reporters on the sidewalk overheard the candidate as he went to war with his own remaking. He discussed abolishing the Department of Housing and Urban Development, committing parricide against the legacy of his father who was once and proudly the secretary of HUD. He said he would downgrade or consolidate the Department of Education and "eliminate" other agencies, but bragged that he wouldn't tell Americans the truth: "I am probably not going to lay out just exactly which ones are going to go." (If only Rick Perry had thought of that answer...)
So Romney has a secret plan to destroy public endeavor, but he accidentally blurted enough of it out to suggest that of his rotating personas the most genuine — if you can apply that word to Mitt — is probably a profile in right-wing dogma.
It was an inopportune moment for another unintended act of self-revelation. Instead of a rehabilitating Etch A Sketch, we glimpsed Romney as the main character in Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray: Mitt may try to keep his true self concealed on canvas in an attic while he offers a false face to the world; but behind closed doors that weren't shut tight enough, the real picture was on display. Indeed, he knows that he would have to govern hard right across the board — or distrusted as he already is, he would be challenged from the right for renomination in 2016.
In terms of character, Romney is almost out of credibility; on issues, he is plainly out of the mainstream; and as a politician, he repeatedly, relentlessly proves he's out of touch. What sensible person running for president would simultaneously be constructing Xanadu on the Pacific, a super-sized, ocean-side mansion in La Jolla with an elevator for four cars? Romney's so wooden that when Diane Sawyer asked him about it, he spouted a cliche about America as "one nation, under God." Not when it comes to four car elevators — no Mitt, we're not.
This guy is like the Earl in an English period piece who doesn't understand why everybody doesn't summer in the south of France.
As I've argued before, the fatal flaw here isn't being rich. FDR and JFK were wealthy, but Americans thought they got it and they cared. In contrast, Romney now stands there as of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich — without the Bush-like lacquer of compassionate conservatism.
No wonder he's the first presumptive nominee in either party with higher unfavorable than favorable ratings "in the [last] eight presidential primary seasons," according to The Washington Post/ABC poll. The gap isn't narrow; he's upside down by 12 points. In popularity, he's 21 points behind President Obama. Only 27 percent of women regard him favorably — and in the new CNN data the president leads among women by 16 percent.
So much for the flap over Hilary Rosen's charge that Ann Romney has "never worked a day in her life." Rosen is a smart person, a decent one, who said something politically stupid — and wrong on the merits. The Romney camp flacked it hard as a potentially redemptive moment for their candidate. But the CNN survey was conducted during and after the controversy; as it turns out, women care a lot less about a Democratic strategist they never heard of before and a lot more about who a candidate is and what a candidate advocates — say, the "end" of Planned Parenthood.
Romney's image is set in his own stiffness, reflective of his remoteness, and nearly irreparable. How do you go on a charm offensive when the moments of spontaneity are contrived, clunky, and off-putting? Even the central narrative, thin and simplistic to start with — that here's the business leader we need to create jobs — sounds increasingly threadbare as the economy recovers. And the message could be shredded to pieces as the Obama campaign targets Romney's job-ravaging, heedless profiteering in the private sector. He has to be hoping hard for a double-dip recession — because right now that's just about all the hope he has.
Dorian Gray had his picture in the attic, and so does Mitt Romney. But voters have already seen too much of the real Romney — they don't like what they see — and they'll see more. That picture is worth a thousand Etch A Sketches. And after November, Mitt can hang it in his own private Xanadu.