Sometimes – well, frankly, pretty often – Mitt Romney scares the crap out of me.
I’m already on record saying that I think he’d be a much better President than Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, and nothing that has happened in the last month has changed that. Both Gingrich and Santorum are completely devoid of either the temperament or experience to handle the job of chief executive of the massive Federal government, a point which Newt Gingrich in particular seems determined to reinforce every single day between now and Super Tuesday (at least). Additionally, both Gingrich and Santorum have been C- candidates (at best) in terms of building a national campaign organization and raising money, both of which are necessary to have any chance to get the job of President, if they want to prove that I’m wrong about their experience and temperament. I am as close to 100% certain as I can be that both would lose in a landslide to Obama.
The problem is that I’m coming close to reaching that same conclusion about Mitt Romney. I don’t know what his problem is. I know there are some pretty serious questions about his ideological moorings, but that’s really less important (note that I did not say not important at all) in an executive than it is a legislator. That said, the number of people who have succesfully gained the nomination of either party without engaging in a substantial amount of flip-floppery is pretty small. The guy’s negatives, at least on paper, would seem to be clearly outweighed by his positives: he is clearly smart, clean cut, completely free of skeletons in his closet, able to self fund, and with a respectable dossier of executive experience. Furthermore, as I have explained before, he has spent the last 6 years ingratiating himself to conservative primary voters in a way that few previous candidates have (remember how McCain didn’t even bother to show up at CPAC in 2007 and in fact tried to set up a competing event down the hall?)
Beyond the “on paper” aspect of Mitt Romney, however, he appears to be a terrible political candidate. I mean, just awful. In debates, he can undo two solid hours of snappy comebacks and intelligent points with a single bizarre and frightening attempt at a natural laugh. (“Are you going to release twelve years of your taxes?” “Maybe! HA HA!”) This quality was absolutely laid bare in spades last night when Romney came out to speak to his supporters in Colorado. The Colorado result was still up in the air at that point but it was clear already that his campaign wasn’t going to have a good night.
Now, if there is one thing Mitt Romney should be used to by now, it is losing elections. By this point, he should have had enough practice at this that he could pull off at least a passable imitation of a leader rallying the troops. Instead, he wandered onto stage shellshocked and dazed, looking like a man who had physically taken a punch, and wandered aimlessly through almost the exact same speech he had given after his resounding victory in Florida. It was bad enough that I, as a Romney supporter, said to myself, “Holy cow, this guy is doomed.”
The problem Mitt Romney has is that he is totally and completely unable to generate loyalty in a broad enough base. He certainly has a small core of diehards, but the vast majority of his support comes from people like me who can only manage a resigned, “Well, I guess he’s the best we have. Sigh.” In modern politics, no amount of looking like a central casting President can compensate for an ability to make people feel, even through the lens of a television camera, that you are a guy who is with them and someone who they want to mount Pickett’s Charge with. Romney just can’t do it.
If you will permit me a digression here, caused no doubt by my longing for Spring Training, into a baseball analogy that I think is apt here (non-baseball fans may skip this paragraph as it will likely cause your eyes to glaze over). Bill James has noted that throughout history, Hall of Famers have accounted for just over 10% of all at-bats in the major leagues. However, only about 1% of all major leaguers make it to the Hall of Fame. Now, some of this phenomenon is explainable by what constitutes a Hall of Famer – Hall of Famers tend to be talented enough that they are not subject to platoon duty, and by definition they are the players who have longer and relatively injury-free careers. However, at least some of the effect is due to the fact that a large number of humans (especially the sort who rise to become high level baseball executives) are highly risk averse. Thus, long after Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson were elite (or even average, in some cases) major league pitchers, MLB general managers continued to shell out huge money at least on the theory that they were safer bets than any of the prospects available in the minor league farm systems. Thus also, the Los Angeles Angels shelled out an ungodly amount of money on a 10-year contract to the 32-year-old Albert Pujols despite already having a 26-year-old first baseman who as a rookie hit 29 home runs and had a .768 OPS. Note that this risk aversion is entirely a function of perception, rather than reality. Is it really true that a 46-year-old Randy Johnson is less of a risk (particularly given the propensity for injury that comes with playing professional sports in your mid-40s) in your starting rotation than your top AAA prospect? Probably not, but due to perception some GM is going to give the geriatric Big Unit a shot. If you charted the future expected careers based on expected career paths charted by age and experience of Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo, Trumbo’s next 10 years should be superior in the aggregate to Pujols’ – but that did not stop the Angles from spending a bazillion dollars on Pujols.
Which brings us back to Mitt Romney – there is no evidence at all that he is any less of a risk (at least electorally speaking) than any of the other candidates. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that almost every time he actually faces the voters, he loses. His polling, several months out, always projects him to do much better than he actually does when the rubber hits the road. This is because, while picking people based on risk aversion may work to some extent in baseball, it is a recipe for failure in politics (see also Kerry, John). For the fans of Moneyball, Mitt Romney is the Billy Beane of political candidates. If he doesn’t show sometime soon that he can figure out how to actually connect with people, I’m going to lose any hope of winning this Presidential election. And I just don’t know, at this point in his career, how Mitt Romney can be taught new tricks.
Romney took a punch in the mouth yesterday, even if it was mostly a completely symbolic punch. This really is his last chance to get back up and prove to his supporters that he’s not as bad of a candidate as he has looked so far.