Who is Mitt Romney anyway?
Like the White House, it seems that the media has decided that, momentary signs of life notwithstanding, Rick Perry will not be defeating Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination next year, that we will have our first Mormon candidate for President challenge our first African American Presidential incumbent. And so the stories now begin to flow in, all attempting to answer that most vexing question—who is Mitt Romney anyway?
If one judges the man by his recent foreign policy address, the conclusion most easily drawn is of Romney as a Mad Man neoconservative; Don Draper with dreams not of the suburban utopia but of razing Tehran. One might have guessed that, following the political and foreign policy catastrophe that was the Iraq War, no Republican today would seek to align himself with the previous GOP President’s signature intellectual legacy (indeed, Bush himself largely abandoned neoconservatism during much of his second term). But Romney’s speech in South Carolina sounded as if it were plucked from time, transported from the heady days of 2002 and 2003, when preposterous announcements of America’s reality-making power were taken gravely—and disastrously—seriously. Like Draper during a sales pitch, Romney certainly can talk the talk:
This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world. God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties. Let me make this very clear. As President of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century. And I will never, ever apologize for America. Some may ask, “Why America? Why should America be any different than scores of other countries around the globe?” I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world… This is America’s moment. We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America’s time has passed…This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President. You have that President today.
But for all of Romney’s messianic American supremacism, for all of his detached-from-reality bluster about America reigning as the benevolent dictator of the roughly 6.7 billion other human beings on the planet, for all his dog-whistles and sly winks to the neoconservative camp and its pathological insistence on regarding any philosophy of American foreign policy less interventionist than its own to be “isolationist,” I still hear more than a bit of Dick Whitman in Willard Romney’s latest reach for diplomatic gravitas. It’s all bluster and bravado; there’s no there there. Examining Romney’s list of Grave Threats, one has the sensation of encountering a knight desperately searching for a dragon to slay:
When I look around the world, I see a handful of major forces that vie with America and free nations, to shape the world in an image of their choosing. These are not exclusively military threats. Rather, they are determined, powerful forces that may threaten freedom, prosperity, and America’s national interests. First, Islamic fundamentalism with which we have been at war since Sept. 11, 2001. Second, the struggle in the greater Middle East between those who yearn for freedom, and those who seek to crush it. The dangerous and destabilizing ripple effects of failed and failing states, from which terrorists may find safe haven. The anti-American visions of regimes in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba—two of which are seeking nuclear weapons. And these forces include rising nations with hidden and emerging aspirations, like China, determined to be a world superpower, and a resurgent Russia, led by a man who believes the Soviet Union was great, not evil.
From my vantage that’s only two threats facing the US, though I’ll admit that the second of the two does seem to be quite expansive. But even if we were to unpack that larger, more unwieldy mass of menace, we’d find that Romney’s demand to rattle our sabers louder and to reverse phantom “massive defense cuts” (the most damaging kind!) is premised upon a fear of the Middle East’s internecine “struggle,” the existence of failing states, the “visions” of a handful of woefully outgunned anti-American sovereigns, and Vladimir Putin’s opinions on the Soviet Union, which are unpopular in nearly every country…except for the one in which he lives and works.
Maybe it’s my youth or maybe I’ve a latent death wish, but this doesn’t strike me as a cast of boogeymen worthy of our nation’s long and noble tradition of hysterical fear.
But I don’t think the right conclusion to draw from this disingenuous pablum is that Romney’s a Trojan Horse for a neocon resurgence; I don’t think Andrew Sullivan is quite right when he asks, rhetorically, “What would Romney do in office?” before answering, “On his own, anything that might win support. But with his neocon brigade of advisers? The mind boggles.” Phony though he is, I don’t think Romney’s that dumb—and I know the neoconservatives aren’t that smart. I doubt that the former Governor of Massachusetts decided to begin running for President in 2006 because he felt at the time that the Cuban Question simply had to be answered.
What’s more likely is that Romney’s running for President for the same reason all remarkably successful business men run for office—because, despite their considering their superiority to be self-evident, America still demands its most prominent power holders to be elected by a majority of their peers. At least for the time being. Beyond winning for its own sake, it’s unclear to me that Romney has much reason to devote himself so tirelessly to this most demanding and pyrrhic of victories. If the latest New York magazine cover-story by Benjamin Wallace-Wells is to be believed, Mitt is not exactly the type to exhaust himself in service of an ideal:
He was a cautious executive…Romney never worked from any particular “macro theme,” any philosophy of how the economy was moving…“I never viewed Mitt as very decisive,” says one of his Bain Capital colleagues. “The idea was that if there’s enough argument around an issue by bright people, ultimately the data will prevail.” Romney may have been, as another early Bain Capital partner puts it, a “very case-by-case, reactive thinker”…[W]hat separates Romney’s [health care] plan from Obama’s—and gives some clues about his potential presidency—is its almost-accidental origin. Romney did not begin with a philosophical quest to improve American health care. He began with the idea of himself as a problem solver and asked those around him for a problem that he might usefully solve. I remembered, when I was told this story, an anecdote I’d heard from a former political staffer of Romney’s. On even basic philosophical questions like abortion, the staffer said, Romney did not try to resolve the question in the abstract, as a matter of principle, and would consider instead various hypothetical cases—for instance, a late-term abortion—and build from them a politics. The line that Romney is a flip-flopper may vastly understate the depth of the condition.
So let’s look at Romney’s speech—and campaign—through the lens of one who understands the man to be “a problem solver” in a quest to solve perhaps the biggest problem of all, the contemporary United States. That cannot be accomplished, first of all, without his becoming the President; and that, of course, cannot be accomplished without his beating the current President in next year’s election. There’s the problem, then—lanky, tall, blessed with an impossibly endearing biography, a textbook big ol’ non-threatening smile, a campaign war chest the likes of which we’ve never seen, and the most lauded and legendary oratorical skills of his generation. But saddled, too, with the worst economy in 70 years and the unenviable task of managing a military behemoth overstretched, undermanned, and—all the more so during widespread economic misery—invested by its citizenry with a desperate belief in total and eternal invincibility.
That’s the problem. And if that’s the problem, then the solution is obvious. Hammer Obama on the economy, relentlessly, mercilessly, with an implacable refusal to admit shades of grey or reasonable differences. Make it an easy, stark dichotomy—as your previous career has shown, you make things better; he makes things worse. You’re the man of jobs; the haver, the giver, the taker—he’s never had a one. You sing America’s praises; he begs its forgiveness. You wan’t to make America strong; he seeks to make it weak. You believe in America; who knows what he really believes. Rinse, wash, repeat. This is the stuff campaigns are made of.
Perhaps Mitt Romney’s really not such an enigma, such a mystery, or such an empty suit after all. Maybe, instead, he’s simply Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, perpetual candidate for President, lord of the leveraged-buyout, Problem Solver. But for all of the times he’s these things and more, and even those times when he’s Don Draper with a chief of staff, I sometimes still see the glimmer of someone else in his eye, hear the treble of someone else in his voice. Even at his brightest moments, when the stars seem all but aligned in his favor, a prophecy of American redemption all but written in his blood, I still see the man written of in the Wallace-Wells piece:
“Mitt was always worried that things weren’t going to work out—he never took big risks,” one of his colleagues told me. “Everything was very measurable. I think Mitt had a tremendous amount of insecurity and fear of failure.”
I still see Dick Whitman.