The Romney Predicament

If nothing else Mitt Romney is a man of firsts.  Four years ago when he ran for President he became the first Mormon to make a serious run at the White House.  His recent re-entry into the field for this go around has produced another, and far more unlikely one.  For the first time in history we have a candidate who is simultaneously the front runner and a long shot.  While his prior bid found voters faced with an assortment of unusual and unprecedented factors to consider, this run finds that list not only still in-tact, but even longer.

A look at his chances reveals a lot to like, but also a series of tough spots created for both the candidate and voters.  In the following we will weigh each against the other, not so much as a comparison of pros and cons but more as a look at advantages verses disadvantages.  This distinction is important because classifying in terms of pros and cons makes the presumption that the realities surrounding a candidate are good or bad.  In some cases I would argue that such judgments are unsubstantiated, in others the opposite of conventional wisdom may be true, and in yet others certain considerations are neither, and frankly should not be a valid part of the debate.  That being said, let’s start by looking at what is certainly a strong list of his advantages.

First and foremost, he is a serious man and a realistic candidate.  He has a background of leadership in both the private economic sector and in government, a mixture that puts him in a nearly ideal position.  While his background outside of politics makes it hard to clearly paint him as a life-long politician and part of the current “Washington” problem, his tenor as Governor suggests that he would not be overwhelmed if he wins the job.  Another huge feather in his cap is that he can prove his skill-set and resume have transferred to success outside of business by pointing to his role in the Salt Lake City Olympics.  All in all he meets the major qualifications and like him or not, he certainly does not struggle to seem Presidential.

In terms of the other areas, he also has many advantages.  He is one of the most polished and well-rounded in the field, having a developed platform on the economic side and being well versed and credible on foreign policy issues.  His prior candidacy showed his personal closet to be skeleton free, proved that he is a more than able debater, and demonstrated that he would have no trouble raising or, as the case may be, providing money.

His final two advantages are of note but for opposite reasons.  The first is overplayed and is his business success and experience.  This no doubt will be seen as a major positive, especially since so many Republicans feel down to their cores that government needs to be run as a business and not a bottomless social experiment.  For Independents, Conservatives, and Libertarians alike, a business approach to government represents a realistic way out of our current financial disaster.  While I agree, and unquestionably this will be his best selling point, my personal opinion is that his past business acumen will have little to do with potential future success or failure in this area. 

Though it sounds good, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that making it big in business translates to overseeing a thriving economy as President, mostly because it rarely has had a chance to be proven.  A look back at history, meaning back to George Washington, finds only one former President  ever has had a prior occupation listed as “businessman,” and only one other that could make a case to join him…and they are both named Bush.  Though probably surprising, Bush the elder stands alone as a former businessman and his son, founder/CEO of Bush Exploration and general partner in The Texas Rangers, is the only President to have a master’s degree in business.  The fact of the matter is that the economy had problems under each Bush while it flourished under Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, neither of whom ever had a sniff of the business world.

The last thing working in his favor is something I view as much underplayed—his wife.  Conventional wisdom says this barely rises above a non-factor, but my sense is that liking a person’s spouse and getting a good vibe from their marriage provides a deep, hard to define, and powerfully sub-concious level of comfort.  Now I’m not saying this can win it for a candidate, but I am saying that it can help lose it.  In proving this I would point to 2004 and the cold, aloof, and elitist public perception of Teresa Heinz-Kerry.  This perception made it hard to imagine her as a first lady, and I would argue is one of a handful of things that cost John Kerry a razor close election.

In this regard the Romneys have no such trouble.  They seem naturally happy together and she is a very impressive woman who you don’t have to squint too hard at to picture as a first lady.  Anyone doubting that a candidate’s marriage and spouse has some impact can either check out a “man on the street” segment to get a true sense of some of these voters, remind themselves of Newt Gingrich’s situation, or if these fail just take a quick glance at Donald Trump and his current wife.

Wow! With all that going for him how could he possibly be a long-shot?  Looking at the other side of the Romney ledger leaves one channeling their inner Yogi Berra by saying, “He is the perfect candidate…except for all his flaws.”  While this list is indeed shorter, it’s also heavier.  Included here is his much talked about implementation of state-run, mandated health insurance in Massachusetts, a clumsy reversal on abortion (is there any other kind?), and the fact that he is a Mormon.

These particular hang-ups could not be any more damaging considering how high profile an issue health care will be and that he likely has to place relatively well in Iowa.  The devastation comes not only from their existence but from how he has chosen to address them, and how they all converge to create an ominous cloud of skepticism.   As much as Romney Care and abortion work against him they have been made worse by him making parsed, nuanced arguments to try and explain them away.  His distinction regarding health care, that it was perfectly fine and Constitutional to address it on a state level, is technically accurate.  In spite of this it simply will not play and puts him in the same camp as another prominent Massachusetts politician.

Once again going back to the 2004 Presidential election, John Kerry was immensely damaged by saying in regards to war funding, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”  Much like Romney on health care Kerry’s statement actually had validity in the context in which he was saying it, but in neither case will that matter.  Romney’s attempt to talk his way out of a past “achievement” will puzzle some, turn off even more, and provide a generous portion of blood in the water for his primary opponents.  Being forced to repeat his equivocations in every debate will continually leave him victim to a saying usually applied to more serious political misdeeds—“The cover up is almost always worse than the crime.”

If even one of these disadvantages was not present I would be tempted to think that the others could be overcome.  As it stands though, the combination of Romney Care, his reversal on abortion, the fact that he does not share the same faith of the vast majority of his potential voters, and his insistent equivocations all congeal in one area to create a feeling, for most Republicans, that they simply can’t trust or rely on him.  Not exactly a formula for winning primaries, especially when at the moment so many Americans are starving for blunt honesty.

Complicating matters for Republicans is that “The Romney Predicament” is not his alone.  His problems have the potential to be equally damaging to the Party, as he may very well be the candidate with the best chance of beating President Obama.  If he is eventually able to win the nomination it will be because of a mixture of voter pragmatism and a very weak Republican field, likely more of the latter. 

As the process plays out don’t be surprised if he increasingly becomes more of a long-shot and less of a front runner.  As a general rule voters do not want to feel like they have to “settle” for a candidate, and for many that is exactly what they would be forced to do in supporting Mitt Romney.  In spite of his impressive past and its long list of advantages, his disadvantages are heavy, untimely, and loud.  The strikes against him are not only the 800 pound gorilla in the room, but one that instead of sitting there just happens to be throwing a temper tantrum.  While muting this beast and claiming victory is possible, it is more likely that this man of many firsts will ultimately find himself in second.

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  1. George Washington | May 18, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply

    If I may please;
    Ron Paul is the only presidential candidate who would cut enough spending to avert a debt crisis. Only he will restore constitutionally sound money. And, only he will strengthen our national defense by bringing our troops home and putting an end to the nation-building that is draining our country.
    Watch Dr Paul question Ben Bernanke if you doubt Paul understands even subtle aspects of the economy.
    Other candidates speak flowery words and tell nothing of how anything will get done. Mr. Paul is very different.
    Constitutionally, legislatively, and morally, Ron Paul has no equal. His 22 year voting record speaks for itself.
    The World is watching.
    Ron Paul for President in 2012.
    Thank You

  2. Dire Wolf | May 18, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Reply

    To George Washington – You are spot on regarding Ron Paul and the Constitution, especially how he would use it to solve the debt crisis. What we have to wonder about is if he would be a strong enough Commander in Chief. Would he protect against active threats and stop Iran from becoming nuclueur with the same boldness as he would approach the defecit? If so I could support him, but if not it would be a tough sell (I am not referring to Nation building by the way, I agree with you on that too). Trust me his passion for the 10th Amendment allows me to overlook some other things I may not be in total agreement with him on, but not manning up on threats is not one of them (as you know that would be his most important Constitutional duty). Curious to who would be your second choice if doesn’t make it the distance, or is it Paul or bust?

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