If Mitt Romney wins South Carolina after Monday's debate performance, then he really is unstoppable. And that's the probable outcome unless, after Rick Perry's departure from the race Thursday, there's an unlikely last-days coalescence of the religious right around the pyrotechnic Newt Gingrich, who as a nominee would prove to be a pyromaniac, reducing the GOP's White House hopes — and perhaps its House majority — to a handful of ashes. Certainly, Rick Santorum seems less likely than Newt to be the ordinand of the religious right in Gingrich's native South.
So the parade of primogeniture in the GOP marches on toward the nomination of another next in line, a younger redo of John McCain, less authentic and even readier to dispense with his own past convictions. But as he enters the general election contest, Romney will carry with him the disadvantage his super-PAC ascribed to Gingrich in attack ads in Iowa. It's Romney who has "a lot of baggage" — not just his shape-shifting, but negatives even more powerful — accumulated in his career as a takeover artist, but awkwardly augmented day after day on the campaign trail.
Romney has to answer not just for his insensitivity and his income taxes, but for the sometimes brutal way in which he made his money in the first place.
In the first South Carolina debate, the candidate of the 1 percent biffed and farbled more than 180 words to respond to a simple question about releasing his tax returns. Maybe in April — "time will tell." By the next morning, he felt compelled to give in, adding that on millions in income he pays "probably closer to 15 percent," far below the rate for middle-class taxpayers. And, of course, since he is, as he klutzed to a campaign audience, "unemployed" himself — that is, living off coupon-clipping and a tax gimmick called carried interest — he's not burdened with payroll taxes either.
It's a good bet that the April disclosure will show that "closer to 15 percent" means less than 15 percent. And it's a better bet that Romney will release only his 2011 return — which can still be re-engineered to reduce its political toxicity. There should be — and will be — a demand to see returns dating back, for example, to 2002. That's the standard President Obama has set. How do we know if in some of those years, Romney paid closer to nothing than to 15 percent?
His baggage is not his wealth. People knew the Roosevelts and the Kennedys were rich, but believed they genuinely cared about hard working and out-of-work Americans — and were fighting to make the system fairer. Romney's tax avoidance doesn't just embody unfairness in a moment when economic justice has emerged as a driving issue; he proves again and again that he's out of touch, unconnected, unconcerned. Comfortably unemployed, he sounds blithely willing to make others join the less privileged ranks of that cohort: "I like to be able to fire people who provide services to me." The context — he claims he was talking about health insurance companies — doesn't excuse the content since the actual danger is that the companies will fire people when they get sick, or for any other reason, and not the other way around. In any event, the explanation can never catch up with the tongue-tripping. Just ask John Kerry whose "I voted for it before I voted against it" was an unfortunately pithy expression of a position that was in fact sensible and defensible: He favored supplemental appropriations during the Iraq War, but thought they ought to be paid for by repealing a portion of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
Romney is the gaffe machine that keeps on giving, in his maladroit excursions positioning himself as the ideal foil for Obama's populist message. In starched shirtsleeves, Romney has told the country that corporations are people; suited up for a debate, he discarded his talking points to casually offer a $10,000 bet to Rick Perry — who even in his haplessness, knew this was a place to pounce. Romney has opined that we should have let General Motors go bankrupt; that the home "foreclosure process" should "run its course"; that his $374,000 in speaking fees are "not very much." I can't wait to hear what will come the next time he slips the surly bonds of his carefully pre-scripted persona and again reveals his true self. Neither can the Obama team in Chicago.
Romney has to answer not just for his insensitivity and his income taxes, but for the sometimes brutal way in which he made his money in the first place. It apparently suffices in Republican primaries to invoke cliches about the market or to cite the companies he started or took over at Bain that succeeded or created jobs. But in the battle ahead, that's no response to the undeniable and vivid instances of what Perry, in a reversion to his Democratic past, has denounced as "vulture capitalism." How can Romney explain the companies that failed, where the workers lost their jobs even after a government bailout, but where Romney made tens of millions of dollars anyway? How ironic to see the party that so fervently denounces bailouts nominating someone who so richly benefited from them.
The unfavorable ratings for Romney's business record are rising among South Carolina Republicans — but pretty plainly not enough to stop him there. But the Bain baggage will be far heavier in the fall, especially among critical blue-collar workers in swing states.
And there's more piled on this luggage cart.
Romney has joined the immigrant-bashers in his party, promising to veto the Dream Act. He's been endorsed by the Kansas attorney general who's a progenitor of the notorious and bigoted anti-immigration laws passed in Alabama and Arizona. As Karl Rove smartly calculated, no Republican can get elected without 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Today Obama's carrying it 68 percent to 23 percent. Picking Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio as his running mate almost certainly can't close the gap with the Hispanics whom Romney has picked on during the primaries. Nor will the candidate's newly minted commercials in Spanish: He may speak their language, but he doesn't speak to their hearts and minds.
Romney's rush to the right also propelled him to embrace Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare — a scheme which would cost the average senior an extra $6,000 a year in out-of-pocket costs. Try to get through Florida in the fall campaign dragging along that piece of baggage. In a recent poll there, 70 percent of the state's Republicans oppose reducing Medicare to cut the federal deficit — and 66 percent oppose "even modest changes."
The last refuge of this privileged, profiteering, often oblivious flip-flopper is to hope for a bad economy so that voters will settle for someone the cover of The Economist banners as "America's Next CEO." But what if the recovery continues — and by election day, people conclude that the country is clearly moving in the right direction? Then Romney would need another narrative. But what is there in his character or record to suggest that he could credibly shift into yet another version of himself? To paraphrase FDR, where there is no vision, the candidate will perish.
And in a troubled economy, Romney will be in trouble anyway — because he is on the wrong side of the dividing line the president is drawing. He's more an exploiter of ordinary people than a fighter for them, distant not just in wealth but in simple human understanding from the majority of ordinary hard-working and out-of-work Americans.
Mitt Romney has more baggage than vision. And that's why for Republicans, he's likely to be the next in line to lose.