Mitt Romney’s troubles bring to mind a pop-psychology bestseller from a few years ago called “He’s Just Not That Into You.” Romney has endured rejection all year. Even the inadequate Herman Cain and the orange-haired reality star Donald Trump at one time polled better among Republicans than camera-ready Romney.
Then on Saturday, voters in South Carolina proved so very not into Romney that they embraced a suitor so monumentally wrong that his nomination would be an epic catastrophe on the scale of Barry Goldwater’s in 1964. Phones were buzzing by Sunday morning as the party establishment called around to raise money and raise a little hell. How could Romney let this happen?
Word was that Mitt had to end his Mittness, to somehow make himself into a regular, likable guy and even get mad in the process. To Washington Republicans, Gingrich is a soft target, one Romney should have put away two surges ago. But political personality changes are risky, like giving up a workable two-handed backhand before you’ve adapted to a one-handed version. Romney is known to be frugal and to relate better to appliances than people, but a trip to the laundry room of his hotel with a packet of Tide, a camera and a son at his side to tweet about it was so obviously staged that it invited ridicule. (Did the machine take fifties?) Romney must stay, for better and worse, Romney.
Home of Resentment
It’s not hard to understand why South Carolina fell hard for a swashbuckling blowhard like Gingrich. The state is a hotbed of the Tea Party (one of its founding fathers is homegrown Republican Senator Jim DeMint), and it’s ground zero for a hefty helping of resentment. Having grudgingly backed John McCain in 2008 only to see him get whomped by Barack Obama, South Carolina Republicans weren’t in the mood for a “Massachusetts moderate.”
The home of Fort Sumter knows something about self-destructive impulses. Gingrich had them at “Hello,” or at least at “No,” the word that began last week’s debate tirade against CNN moderator John King, who had asked Gingrich if he wanted to address his second wife’s allegation that Gingrich had sought an open marriage. Oh, did he. Having stoked resentment of the news media for more than four decades, Republican leaders can’t fault Gingrich for perfecting the party’s game. His defiance thrilled the Republican base, which proceeded to send a message to the party elite about just who’s electable and who isn’t.
In Florida, which is more diverse and less ideological than South Carolina, cooler heads could prevail if Romney can exploit his advantage in minions and millions. He has had the airwaves largely to himself for weeks, accompanied by a superior organization. Romney’s campaign is in attack mode now -- a sign that the campaign shares the Washington insiders’ anxiety.
During Monday’s debate, Romney calmly defended his career at Bain Capital LLC, and on Tuesday, he released his 2010 taxes. (He is rich -- surprise! -- and paid an effective federal tax rate of 13.9 percent, which will surely be grist for the general election if Romney makes it there.)
Romney put Gingrich on the defensive for the first time in weeks, defining him as a pure influence peddler whose clients paid him to advance policies, including the Medicare prescription drug benefit, that padded their bottom lines. Soon after recounting how Gingrich “resigned in disgrace” from the House of Representatives, however, Romney was gently referring to Gingrich’s “record of great distress.” He’s no Jack the Ripper.
Gingrich is. Millions of female voters will view Gingrich not only as a serial adulterer, for which betrayal is just the floor, but also as an especially cruel one. On a young congressman’s salary, he claimed he couldn’t afford child support. He had a six-year extramarital affair with a House staff member half his age while he was prosecuting President Bill Clinton for having an affair with an intern half his age. He’s written novels that would embarrass Danielle Steel. I will make a Romney-size bet that, even in an economy that favors a challenger, Callista Gingrich will never be first lady.
There is also the matter of the organized religious right. A group of prominent Christian conservatives gave a late, ineffectual endorsement to former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. After Santorum’s poor showing in South Carolina, those conservatives are cranking up their efforts. Were Gingrich to win the Republican nomination, it would strip the last vestiges of legitimacy from the movement built by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and their brimstone-bearing cohorts. How could they preach family values alongside a Republican standard-bearer who is on his third marriage? Christian forgiveness might get you one do-over, but not a second.
Given the spectacular flaws of Gingrich, the race remains Romney’s to lose. His efforts to display humanity are hampered by Romney’s belief that everyone could have his fortune if only they worked as hard as he has -- never mind growing up with family wealth, a powerful father, the finest schools and a gifted intellect. Posing as a regular Joe is awkward for him: pretending he was pinched by a waitress, joking about being unemployed and blurting out that he likes to fire people -- a statement that many voters may fear is too close to the truth.
Romney might do his campaign -- and himself -- a favor by spending time with some people who are suffering, many of them conservative Republicans. They’re everywhere in Florida, where unemployment is 9.9 percent and home foreclosures are rampant. Maybe he could visit schools where homeless children valiantly make it to class. He could meet parents who are ashamed in front of their kids, for whom they still hope to make a better life. Few envy his success; they could use his support. Maybe if he broke out of his comfort zone and got to know a few, the experience would help transform Mitt Romney into a man who could understand, and lead, them.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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