It looks like Mitt Romney has come out the ambivalent winner of Super Tuesday. He's grinding toward the GOP nomination, inevitably crushing his opponents with overwhelming resources and organization, but not delivering a knockout punch.
The tragedy of Mitt Romney is that in order to secure the nomination, he has to run away from all the good things he is and once accomplished.
In my Week in Review roundups on Fridays, Romney regularly serves as a source of mockery. He makes it so easy as he frequently blunders into the stereotype that the press and his opponents have built for him. He tries to look like a regular guy by making an awkward gesture for a $10,000 bet the way you or I would make a $10 wager. He goes to a NASCAR race and tries to connect with blue-collar fans by boasting that he knows several team owners. He tried to connect with blue-collar Michigan autoworkers by saying that his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs."
This would all be silly nitpicking if he wasn't constantly lending more evidence to the narrative that he is an out-of-touch rich guy who will say anything to get elected.
But rather than mock him today, I want to be more kind. Look, Romney certainly deserves the criticism he gets for being something less than a man of principle. Every successful politician trims and changes positions to catch whatever political waves happen to be moving at the moment. In fact, show me a politician who has never changed a position and I'll show you a rigid, unthinking ideologue.
But you hope that a politician will have some core principles from which he won't retreat for political convenience. That's one of the things that many of us admire about Russ Feingold, and it's one thing that some idealistic young people see in Ron Paul. (Though in Paul's case, it seems to me that the paranoid and sometimes racist ramblings in writings attributed to him make him unfit to serve in Congress, much less to lead the nation.)
There's no core principle I can identify in Mitt Romney short of overarching ambition. What's tragic about that is that I believe Romney is, at base, a decent, intelligent, moderate man who could actually be a good president. The problem is that he lacks the moral courage to talk about the best things about himself. He knows that the things that make him most qualified to be president would damage his chances to get his party's nomination.
He served as a missionary in France, but he can't talk much about that because it would remind people that he is a Mormon and he speaks fluent French. But that kind of worldly experience is what we should want in a president.
He ran the Salt Lake City Olympics, and by all accounts managed that massive undertaking brilliantly, but doesn't talk much about it because he was smart enough to get federal earmarks to help pay for it. (By the way, I support earmarks, otherwise known as "pork," but that's another post.)
His work at Bain was mixed at best, but he could make a case that he took struggling companies and made them stronger by making tough decisions, adding value to the overall economy, and sacrificing some jobs at a company to keep everyone from losing theirs. But he blunders around even here by using phrases like "creative destruction" that make him appear unfeeling to those who lost their jobs.
He was governor of Massachusetts, which is remarkable in itself given that that is among the bluest of the blue states, which should indicate his moderation and electability nationwide. As governor, he led the nation in creating a health care reform program that served as the basis for what President Obama did at the national level. Yet, he does contortions trying to make up reasons why his program was entirely different. I loved the one at the last debate where he said his plan was different because it contained fewer pages than Obama's.
Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have attacked him as a "Massachusetts moderate." In a saner party, both would be seen as an asset. He has the chance to win even in liberal states and he can run from the middle. But in the ideologically extreme Republican Party of today, moderation is a dirty word. The GOP primaries seem to be about proving that your worldview is more 1690s than 2010s. Maybe Romney can really make a score by using the Massachusetts thing to his advantage by claiming that had he been governor during the Salem witch trials, he'd be all for them.
Mitt Romney, with his own clumsy statements and blatant opportunism, has made himself the subject of easy satire. The tragedy is that his history shows that he has the skills and instincts to be a decent moderate president along the lines of Dwight Eisenhower or the first George Bush.
At the moment, it looks like President Obama will get a second term. But don't cheer too hard for Rick Santorum, thinking that he is more easily beatable. One of two men will be president come next January. And if it isn't Barack Obama, we can only hope that it's a reborn Massachusetts moderate.