Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, fresh off third-place finishes in the South, faces a bracing test Tuesday in Illinois. If he loses there, we're likely to see panicky reactions in Camp Romney and the wider Republican universe.
Why can't Romney wrap this up?
It's not just his moderate political past or his policy flip-flops. Yes, those are flaws in the eyes of the conservative electorate. But every candidate has flaws. Voters tend to decide whether to condemn politicians or forgive them on the basis of whether they like them.
So it's important to ask, How likable is Romney?
It's a good thing for the Romney campaign that "Game Change" — a film aired last weekend on HBO that was based on the 2008 campaign book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin — focused on the most charismatic character in the book, Sarah Palin, instead of the least charismatic, Mitt.
Campaign books can be devastating. The very goal of the book is to let you see what the candidates don't want you to see — a look at the person behind the image. One of the implicit elements in every candidate's image is: "I'm a great person! Everybody likes me!" But each candidate is different in how far that image wanders from the reality.
Here's a scene from the book "Game Change": "The candidates lined up at the urinals, Giuliani next to McCain next to Huckabee, the rest all in a row. The debate was soon to start, so they were taking care of business — and laughing merrily at the one guy who wasn't there. Poking fun at him, mocking him, agreeing about how much they disliked him. Then Willard Mitt Romney walked into the bathroom and overheard them, bringing on a crashing silence."
"The combination of the vitriol of his attacks and his apparent corelessness explained the antipathy the other candidates had toward him. McCain routinely called Romney an (expletive deleted) and a 'phony.' Giuliani opined, 'That guy will say anything.' Huckabee complained, 'I don't think Romney has a soul.'"
This squares with Romney's reputation in Massachusetts. The New York Times' Michael Barbaro, in a recent piece on Romney's personal style as governor, reported that Romney didn't know the legislators (never mind their families, their worries or the names of their kids). He avoided contact with them. He cordoned off an elevator in the Capitol for his use alone so he wouldn't have to ride with them.
Romney doesn't seem to like people much. And when you don't like others, they tend not to like you back.
Curiously, after George Will stirred things up by writing that Romney seems unlikely to be elected, columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an advice column to Romney, full of maternal affection, suggesting that he be himself.
She wrote: "No one in this country thinks you're a cool, with-it kind of guy — and they're fine with that. They don't want you to be cool. They want you to fix the economy. They want you to be serious, presidential and the grown-up you are.
"There's no predicting what will happen in November, no matter what the pundits say. But if you go down, enjoy the ride by being fearlessly yourself — uncool, unafraid, intelligent, experienced, determined and, as you put it, resolute."
It's odd that an experienced political observer would tell a not-very-likable guy to be himself in a contest in which likability correlates with electability. But the notion that Mitt is "unafraid" and "resolute" goes beyond odd to unreal, because Mitt is terrified of losing, and that has kept him from being resolute.
Here's what "Game Change" has to say:
"For all Romney's business acumen and affectations ... his advisers found him indecisive, an incorrigible vacillator. He would wait and wait, asking more and more questions, consulting with more and more people, ordering up more and more data. The internal debates over his message and even his slogan went on for months, without end or resolution."
I can understand why the discussions about a slogan went on for months. Romney is an awkward introvert who doesn't like people and whose deepest political conviction is the desire to be president. How do you turn that into a slogan? Wait, I've got it:
"President Nixon. Now More Than Ever."
Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.