Recent polls show Romney now ranks as a narrow early frontrunner with Republicans. Romney’s support stands at 21%, versus Mike Huckabee’s at 20%, Sarah Palin’s at 13% and Newt Gingrich’s at 11%. Romney thus picks up pretty much where he left off in 2008 when he first ran for the Republican presidential nomination, but was beaten out by John McCain (who, of course, lost decisively to Obama in November 2008).
Romney staked his claim to his party’s leadership with the statement “with able leadership, America’s best days are still ahead” arguing that Barack Obama had failed to provide them. He went on to say, “It is time that we put America back on a course of greatness with a growing economy, good jobs and fiscal discipline in Washington.” By positioning himself as the person who can best deliver leadership for economic growth, Romney seems to be betting that public discontent with the Obama administration’s economic leadership and a still-fragile economic recovery a year from now will play to Romney’s career strengths, even though economic leadership has usually been seen as a Democratic, not Republican, political strength.
Or, in Romney’s words, “President Obama’s policies have failed. He and virtually all the people around him have never worked in the real economy. They just don’t know how jobs are created in the private sector. From my vantage point in business and in government, I have become convinced that America has been put on a dangerous course by Washington politicians and it has become even worse during the last two years.”
Mitt Romney comes from Republican political royalty. His father, George, was governor of Michigan and an early favourite for the presidential nomination in 1968, until his inexplicable public announcement that he had been “brainwashed” by the Johnson administration and the US military over the true facts of the Vietnam War.
Mitt Romney’s own early career was outside politics as a business consultant and then as head of Bain Capital in its heady days of corporate deal-making, mergers and acquisitions. After earning a personal fortune, Romney devoted himself to public service, first with a run for a senate seat, then as the undoubted saviour of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics – when corruption and financial ineptitude threatened their imminent collapse. Romney won international plaudits for his “helmsmanship” of the troubled event. That helped catapult him into a successful race for one term as governor of Massachusetts in 2002 as a pragmatic, businesslike, moderate Republican in that most quintessentially Democratic of American states.
Watch Mitt Romney: “Believe in America”.
While governor, he helped craft and guide to passage a comprehensive medical health coverage plan for his state. This plan actually became one of the models for what Republicans now derisively call “ObamaCare”, the president’s healthcare plan that controversially passed into law in the US in 2010 and that Romney now criticises so stridently. Social conservatives and Tea Party Republicans who might otherwise be rallying to a Romney candidacy still seem to find his espousal of his statewide health plan (even if he’s presumably had a second-think about healthcare since) as one of their abiding concerns about a Romney candidacy for the presidency.
Other policy challenges for Romney include his switcheroo on abortion and a pervasive sense that, despite his protestations now, he remains more pro-business than pro-social values. Then there are more difficult-to-measure issues such as his religion – and back in the memories of political operatives, a certain business about an undocumented alien working as a gardener and a dog strapped to the roof of the family car during a 1,200km summer vacation, family road trip.
Absent such issues, Mitt Romney might otherwise have already become the heir-apparent as his party’s candidate for 2012. Traditionally, the Republican Party has eschewed Democratic Party-style street fights over the presidential nomination, instead rallying around the party leader next-in-line. Richard Nixon was defeated in 1960, but, after a suitable period of reflection and a personality refit, became nominee in 1968. Ronald Reagan couldn’t gain the nomination over a hapless Gerald Ford, but he became the party’s frontrunner in 1980. George Bush Snr waited his turn and became the nominee in 1988 and John McCain, after losing out in 2000, finally became the nominee two years ago, even if he couldn’t beat the eventual Obama tsunami for “change”.
As a result, if the pattern continued to hold, Mitt Romney would ordinarily become the almost-guaranteed Republican standard-bearer after trying and failing in 2008 to become the nominee, but then loyally campaigning for John McCain. But the Republican Party has been undergoing a metamorphosis over the past couple of decades.
Instead of remaining a stridently pro-business, pro-Main Street, pro-internationalist foreign policy party, the Republicans have grown increasingly inward-looking and increasingly a white party that deflects blacks and other minorities away from supporting it. The rise of the Tea Party within its ranks and a consequent growing support for social conservatism and disaffection, the shift of its centre of gravity away from the Northeast and towards the South, and a more isolationist-style on foreign affairs have all come together to make someone like Mitt Romney more rather than less suspect to the conservative social activists that are now a key part of the Republican Party’s base – at least in the primaries.
While Romney could presumably be able to generate a successful electoral crossover appeal to Democrats and independents on the basis of his economic message and actually win the whole thing, his political lineage actually makes him more suspect to Republicans in the primaries and caucuses that help determine the candidate at the convention. It is here where the Mike Huckabees, Michele Bachmanns, Sarah Palins and Newt Gingriches are likely to find their footing, even if they are anathema to the more general population that actually wins an election.
Photo: Mitt Romney, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organising Committee (SLOC) for the Winter Olympic Games of 2002, talks to the media during a news conference at the Sydney Olympic Park September 27, 2000. Romney announced the theme of the 2002 games and marked the 500-day countdown to the opening ceremony of the next winter Olympics. Reuters.
But there is another joker in the deck of Mitt Romney’s national electoral chances. Romney belongs to a church that a significant number of Americans still regard as little more than a cult – the Church of the Latter Day Saints, a.k.a. the Mormons.
The Mormons are, in fact, among the most American of religious groups, having been founded there in the middle of the 19th century. Pursued from their original “homeland” in upstate New York by some serious religious intolerance, the Mormons migrated west until they found their promised land around the initially unpromising precincts of the Great Salt Lake Basin in the Utah Territory. Tormented by locusts and then saved by seagulls, the Mormon community built a flourishing community, though the Utah Territory was not admitted as a state until 1896, and only after the church fathers formally eschewed a previous article of faith – polygamy.
Over the years, the Mormons have received sideways glances from many for any hint of relapsing back to polygamy; for keeping black Americans out of the church’s inner circle until recently; for eschewing beer, wine, coffee, tea and most soft drinks (at least until fairly recently for Coke and Pepsi); for having rites and rituals both secret and obscure and for being successful to a degree that incites envy on the part of many. Church members do a period of missionary work while still young and single, work and study harder than most other people – and provide the world’s best repository of genealogical information. But, at least so far, Mormons remain on the fringes as presidential timber. Back in the 1960s, George Romney wore his religion rather more lightly than his son does, at least in the public eye. Curiously, the Mormon faith, having taken hits in recent years on TV in shows like “Big Love”, has actually gained a gentler, more sympathetic treatment on Broadway of all places in a new musical – “The Book of Mormon” – by the creators of the sharply irreverent TV cartoon series, “South Park”.
For Mitt Romney, certainly, this run for the presidency will be cast as the Mormon equivalent of Roman Catholic John Kennedy’s breakthrough moment as a politician when he won the Democratic nomination in 1960 and, then the election, with his assertion in intensely Protestant West Virginia that he was an American who happened to be Catholic, rather than a Catholic who happened to be an American. By aggressively pushing his claim as an experienced, competent economic manager who is ready to do what is necessary and as a man who has actually created jobs, Romney is subliminally betting the nation’s economic climate will remain weak at least until November 2012.
By starting early and getting out in front of the rest of the Republican pack, and with lots of cash to use on early campaigning, Romney also hopes to set the pace so strongly the rest start dropping away until his only remaining challenger is such a fringe candidate that Republicans must rally to Romney regardless of misgivings.
But coming forward this early also gives his opponents the opportunity to point out potential contradictions in his positions, as he may have expressed them to win in Massachusetts a decade ago. In his 2002 gubernatorial candidacy, Romney had styled himself a moderate on abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research, reprising many of the same things he had said eight years earlier when he had run an unsuccessful 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy.
And so, his social conservative opponents will inevitably start to ask: Is he in favour of state-managed healthcare or not? Is he in favour of abortion or not? What about gay rights? Stem-cell research? Where does he stand, precisely, on environmental activism? What does he actually believe about raising taxes on the rich and cutting government spending on programmes that social conservatives love to hate? What, exactly, is his position on immigration reform or more stringent border control – especially since he’s already been in the public eye once for hiring an undocumented alien to tend his petunias.
But even if he succeeds on all these fronts, he still has to win over America’s dog lovers – all 43 million households-worth of them. What’s this? It seems that back in 1983, the Romney family took an extended road trip to Canada. Maybe space inside the car was limited – the Romney family had five children after all. But along with some of the luggage, they strapped a dog carrier to the roof of their car, stowed the family Irish setter in the carrier and then set off on the family journey. To say that the dog was unimpressed is to state the obvious and for years Romney has had to endure being the butt of jokes about the way the family pooch demonstrated his visceral dislike of his billeting arrangements. Say what you want, but it is an absolute guarantee the American Kennel Club, the SPCA and Peta are not going to endorse Mitt Romney for president. Nor, we’ll bet, is the Obama family pet, Bo, the Portuguese waterdog. DM
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Photo: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference meeting at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, February 11, 2011. The CPAC is a project of the American Conservative Union Foundation. REUTERS/Larry Downing.
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