RUMOURS OF ROMNEY’S demise, to paraphrase Mark Twain, may be premature: but we know already the substance of the obituary should it soon come to that.
The man who on paper had ample leverage to upset the president, in a time of economic stagnation, failed to dispel the suspicion he was a Dickensian plutocrat — this despite the uniform testimony of the informed that he is a generous man. As Gerald Ford could not divest his image of the nebbish and klutz, and as Bob Dole over and again reinvigorated the GOP cliché of a curmudgeon-reactionary, so too Romney has fallen short in the one category without which political success is near unattainable, communication. In contrast to George W. Bush, and as a leaked fund-raising video has again proved, Romney’s is a tin ear for witticisms. His attempts at irony, humour, self-effacement and plain folkisms invariably blow back into his face. So the obituary, if composed by someone with a good ear and eye for irony, will note that Romney failed at the one thing most associated with the politician he chose to emulate, the “great communicator” Ronald Reagan.
David Frum has done us the service of critiquing Romney’s assertions (“The Sinister Message Behind Romney’s ‘Gaffe’”), and I’m tempted likewise to restrict myself to the terrain of an individual act of political miscalculation. On the big picture side of that fence however there is a prospect of the current political stalemate, in which Democrats project a rival clique of women-warring dark age bigots and Republicans lecture the vacant chair of a Kenyan-socialist POTUS. As Romney has already noted, this absurd war of electoral attrition is undertaken in a desperate hope to sway “the five to ten percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what he looks like.” In this too there is a buried insult for those who care to unearth it, and if Romney truly regards his United States of America a nation of layabouts and goofs, even the few thoughtful of whom may be won over by good looks, then perhaps he ought to reconsider the job of president and join Mark Twain in the business of satire.
I doubt however that he does view America in this crude manner. His political miscalculation seems to me the result of a calculation. The primary trial of fire has conditioned Romney, like Bob Dole and so many previous aspirants of both parties, to indulge their activist cohort while trusting that the sound of the human voice won’t drift too far on the wind. In an election this is bad enough, but consider the months ahead and the so-called fiscal cliff toward which the country is headed. The parties now ventriloquise the issues, speaking of the proper topics but in and through terms that produce only caricature and impasse. They refuse to cooperate as a matter of principle. They are, in a word, enemies. To cite only one of several possible examples from Romney’s leaked presentation, I present the matter of entitlements. The non-discretionary allocations of the US federal budget are indeed unsound under the present fiscal arrangements. Romney should be talking about the welfare state, but in a practical and intelligent and principled way rather than in this pandering and cartoonish fashion. Let the obituaries further note the opportunity yielded, and the failure of a nation’s political system to seize it.