Republican voters are now the political equivalent of Mitt Romney's famously abused dog Seamus. Mitt has put voters on the roof of his car, and he's driving for the nomination whether they like it or not. More accurately, he's sputtering toward the nomination as the roof-bound electorate periodically poops on his parade.
His message is inevitability; the voters don't have any effective say left. He's racked up 53 percent of the delegates with just 38 percent of the popular vote. Rick Santorum has to capture 65 percent of the remaining delegates to reach a majority — an almost impossible task.
It would comfort those of us who've conceded Romney's inevitability if he'd actually win a round of critical close-out contests. Reporters, weary of this campaign's uninspiring slog, and establishment Republicans, wary of its extremist drift, concluded he just might do it in Alabama and Mississippi. Before the polls closed on Tuesday, Matt Drudge, the candidate's reliable waterboy, posted "leaked" exit polls with the headline: "Alabama tight; Romney takes Mississippi."
Mitt has put voters on the roof of his car, and he's driving for the nomination whether they like it or not.
In reality, Seamus' owner lost almost every demographic group in both states. One conspicuous exception was pro-abortion-rights voters. Apparently, they believe or hope Romney is lying about the issue, and that's a virtue. Instead of breaking through and shutting down the race, Romney dragged across the finish line in third place.
The fact that he was beaten by both the disorganized, distinctly unpresidential Santorum and the Macy's hot air balloon known as Newt Gingrich is more proof of Romney's near fatal flaws as a candidate. In the aftermath, the supporters of Mitt the Third, and some in the political press, have spun out three saving myths to redeem his prospects.
First, his donors are "calling for a message adjustment... more on his economic planks." But that strategic boilerplate is exactly what Mitt tried on Super Tuesday, and again in his flailing foray into the South. He called for: "More jobs, less debt, smaller government" — a cobbled collection of poll-tested phrases rather than a compelling narrative.
Moreover, his centerpiece proposal — a tax cut that would vastly and disproportionately benefit the wealthy — is at war with that slogan. The non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reported that Mitt's proposal, extorted from him by the keepers of the supply-side flame, would add $2.6 trillion to the national debt. When confronted with the contradiction on CNBC's Squawk Box, the candidate said his plan "can't be scored" — on the tissue-thin ground that he'd have to refine some of his details with Congress.
It's the same trick he tried in his humiliation of a debate against the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994. Pressed on the cost of what was then his health care plan, Romney biffed and farbled and then said he couldn't and shouldn't have to come up with an estimate. Kennedy shot back: "But that's exactly what you have to do as a legislator."
The economic argument hasn't worked well for Romney with Republicans who are the descendants of the Reagan Democrats, those who earn $50,000 a year or less; he's lost their votes across the primary season. And for the general election, if not before, the inauthentic, aloof Romney, the job-destroyer and "vulture capitalist" (to use Rick Perry's felicitous phrase), will have to muster an appeal other than his checkered background as a CEO, espeically if the economy continues to create jobs — and more Americans grow more confident in the future and more suspicious of Romney as an avatar and champion of privilege and unfairness.
For the contests just ahead, there's a second supposedly saving myth: At least temporarily out of his electoral ditch in the South, Romney's on friendly territory as he returns to the Midwest — to Illinois, where he's four points ahead of Santorum in a Chicago Tribune poll, and then on to Wisconsin, where late last month Santorum held a 16-point lead. This could be deja vu all over again — and a close-run thing. In previous battles in Ohio and Michigan, where Romney nearly proved that he couldn't go home again, he inched his way to narrow victories riding a wave of super PAC money and negative ads. But the same wave left him low and wet in Santorum's wake in Mississippi and Alabama. Still, the attack ads may sustain Romney up North; his campaign and super PAC are spending nearly $3.5 million in Illinois in the final days alone — and they're blasting the airwaves in Wisconsin, too.
The Land of Lincoln is President Obama's home state. His "inevitable" opponent has a less-than-zero chance of claiming the state in the fall. Indeed, it is a telling truth of Romney's primary journey that he does least well in the reddest states, unless they happen to be heavily Mormon. If he stumbles more, he will seek and probably find final respite in true blue New York and California. His only expedient elsewhere — and perhaps even there — is to deface the airwaves with dark charges that the other guy is even worse than he is.
Finally, GOP strategists and partisans comfort themselves with the myth that a long, drawn-out process will strengthen the eventual nominee; after all, isn't that what happened with Obama in 2008? There's a decisive difference here, as John McCain's former campaign chief Steve Schmidt candidly observed: The Democrats liked and wanted to nominate both Obama and Hillary Clinton; this year's Republicans aren't sure they like or want any of their candidates.
Romney's travails reveal the depths of popular resistance to him — even as GOP voters see him as the likely nominee. They may get a rest stop: In Missouri, Tennessee, Kansas, or down South; but then there they are back on the roof of the frontrunner's well-financed vehicle, bumping down the road toward Tampa.
In defense of the drawn-out process, The Weekly Standard's William Kristol, who early on had the good sense to identify Romney's phoniness and fragility, now argues: "If Santorum were to win an upset victory, he'd have a real wind at his back going into the general election." Huh? It would be an ill wind for Republicans; the overwhelming odds are that this throwback to a mean and intolerant America would end up far behind the president — and take Republicans in Congress down with him. Kristol, who recycles the analogy to 2008 without analyzing it, also rationalizes that Romney will "be better off than if he clinched the nomination early..."
I'd like to see someone convince Mitt of that; it's an audacious, almost despairing denial of reality. Romney's marathon of spurts and stumbles has turned into a panderthon that has cratered his ratings among independents and among Americans generally. As I've observed before, this gets worse every week. The candidate seems to be campaigning against his own character. Thus Romney found himself waist deep in the muddy Mississippi as he proclaimed his love for "cheesy grits" — which turned to electoral ashes in his mouth. He also "had catfish for the second time." Was he trying to eat his way into people's affections? He came across again and again as entirely synthetic. His dropped his "g"s to greet rallies with a contrived "good mornin'." It was all a transparent fig leaf over his enormous opportunism.
And for Romney, it wasn't a "good evenin'" on primary night. He couldn't bring himself to face the verdict in public. He issued a statement that trafficked in cliches — "It's time for our great country to stand tall again" — and defensively insisted on his inevitability — "[W]e are even closer to the nomination than ever." It's an easy temptation and a dangerous ploy: People don't like to be told the outcome is decided before their ballots are cast and counted. It invites them to confound his presumption by voting against Romney. So you don't say it even if it's true. But the sheer Mitt-ness of all this is part of an established, cringe-inducing pattern. Maybe he'll begin a speech in Illinois by intoning: "Eleven score and sixteen years ago, when America was founded..."
Still Romney has assets beyond his financial and structural advantages. Crucially, Newt is his wing man, dividing the right-wingers — unless they figure out that the former speaker has no chance left, leave him lonely in the flickering spotlight of his bloviating ego, and switch to Santorum.
As for Romney's road ahead, the nomination may be his all-but-certain destination — and destiny — as it was at the start. As for the doubting rank-and-file Republicans trapped on top of the Mitt-mobile: They're the Seamus of 2012. For now, they can dump on the car, but they apparently can't stop it.