Mitt Romney’s long slog through the Republicans’ reality-show primary is over.
After the party auditioned a cast of unlikely and occasionally unstable contenders ranging from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain to a resurgent Rick Santorum, the most responsible man won.
It is a remarkable achievement—the first non-Protestant to capture the evangelical party’s nomination and a formerly moderate governor of Massachusetts whose signature achievement was health-care reform will lead the Tea Party insurgency of 2010 into a presidential election.
But having finally outlasted the fringe festival, Mitt Romney seems reluctant to put the reality show behind him. He spent the night of his nomination victory in Las Vegas with Donald Trump, the last big-name bloviating birther.
With friends like these, the etch-a-sketch moment that campaign manager Eric Fehrnstrom infamously promised may be a long time coming. You can take the candidate out of the primary—but can you take the primary out of the candidate?
Romney won this race without ever letting daylight come between him and the far right. Unlike George W. Bush, who warned Republicans in Congress not to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor” when he was running for president—or John McCain, whose principled independence alienated evangelicals and the talk-radio crowd—Mitt Romney has spent the better part of the past year trying a “me too” approach when confronted with conservative criticism. He presented himself as a “severe conservative” at CPAC, refused to condemn Rush Limbaugh for calling Sandra Fluke a slut, and embraced essentially all the social-conservative litmus tests required to win the nomination. The best that can be said is that he did these things without much enthusiasm, reflecting the pragmatism of a salesman who knows he must say or do whatever is necessary to hit his target number.
It is worth noting, however, that it took Romney two and a half months longer to reach the magic number than it did George W. Bush or John McCain, both of whom clinched in March. And while the extended primary calendar and proportional delegate system had a lot to do with this dynamic, Romney struggled against a significantly weaker field aided by a big-money advantage, routinely outspending opponents 5 to 1. In the wake of Rick Santorum’s surrender six weeks ago, Romney has marched toward the nomination with no active opposition, but he still struggled to exceed 70 percent of the vote in successive primaries. The lesson is at least as old as The Beatles: “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
Now that Romney has made his sale, it can be expected that his moderation will emerge—after all, it was always the unspoken essence of his vaunted “electability.” Romney has real assets in this election, as Democrats are belatedly realizing. He can convincingly sell himself to swing voters as a professional problem-solver—a turnaround expert, not a typical politician—a man whose entire career has been devoted to improving the economic competitiveness of once-proud organizations.
To top it off, Mitt Romney is a man of deep faith and impeccable personal morals, at least as an adult. But perhaps in a nod to rendering “unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” is ample evidence of a gap between the candidate’s personal and political values. Tone comes from the top, and Team Romney seems devoted to the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach to politics. They have forgotten the homespun wisdom of W: “You can’t take the high horse and then claim the low road.”
Which brings us back to the unfortunate but entirely predictable timing of a fundraiser with Donald Trump in Sin City on the night of the Texas primary. The Donald’s unhinged call into CNN’s Situation Room, where he continued to insist that President Obama was not born in the United States, could not have been designed by the Obama campaign any better if Trump were a political double agent. Romney’s persistent public embrace of the reality-show star turned clownish conspiracy theorist only compounded their problems. What’s worse, it follows a pattern that someone in the Boston HQ ought to have noticed by now: Romney always loses the news cycle when extreme voices from his own party hijack the conversation, whether on birtherism or talk about holding the country hostage to another debt-ceiling game of chicken. Extremes are always ultimately their own side’s worst enemy.
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza pointed out via Twitter that this June marks the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment. Bubba was behind in the polls at the time, losing to both Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush. But when the rapper known as Sister Souljah called for a month for black people to kill white people—as a respite from epidemic black-on-black violence—Clinton seized the opportunity to condemn an extremist on his side of the aisle at a Rainbow Coalition convention. Jesse Jackson howled at what he regarded as a “Machiavellian maneuver,” but Clinton’s declaration of independence from the far left sent a signal about his capacity for real leadership that could recenter his party and realign politics.
Romney’s repeated reluctance to take such a stand speaks to the extent to which he is still being held hostage by the right-wing reality-show primaries. It reeks of Stockholm syndrome—Romney seems to think his captors are his friends. If the lure of big money isn’t enough to cause him to break the birther embrace, what will? Where is the red line that Romney won’t cross in his pursuit of political gold?
The fact that his long-fought-for nomination victory is being overshadowed by this radioactive distraction ought to be wakeup call enough. Romney is now the leader of the Republican Party, and it’s his responsibility to stand tall and set a tone that shows a capacity to be president of the United States. Failure to confront and condemn ignorance and hate indicates precisely the opposite.