Republicans are doing something quite strange at the moment. They are in the process of choosing a candidate whom hardly any of them actually likes. Though Mitt Romney won the Florida primary handily yesterday, by a 14 point margin, rumbles of disaffection continue. Most of the others said they would prefer the choice of someone who is not currently running. Week by week, the Republican nomination is not so much being won by Mr Romney as it is defaulting to him for lack of any compelling alternative.
The case for voting for Mr Romney goes as follows: of those on offer, he is the only one with any real chance of defeating Barack Obama in November. In support of this electability hypothesis, Mr Romney’s advocates elaborate such qualities as the candidate’s lack of any obvious mental defect, the non-extremity of his views, and his vastly superior financial and organisational resources. Seldom, however, do his half-hearted supporters evince any affection or enthusiasm for the man himself. They generally acknowledge Mr Romney to be an insipid, somewhat blank personality, who is almost absurdly variable in his positions and core beliefs.
In this respect, Mr Romney strongly resembles two similarly unloved Democratic nominees from the recent past, Al Gore and John Kerry. These both suffered from the same characterisations that are applied to Romney – too wooden in person while too flexible in their views. Their supporters often argued that qualifications were what mattered. But ominously for Mr Romney, both lost winnable races because of their flawed personalities. George W. Bush, on the other hand, was elected and reelected, despite his enormous substantive shortcomings, because ordinary people found it easy to relate to him at a personal level. They felt he wasn’t trying to be someone different from who he was.
Romney, Kerry and Gore are all, in a way, versions of the same political type. Statuesque, handsome, from privileged backgrounds and impeccably credentialed, they have no log cabin stories to humanise and ground them. Unlike a Lyndon Johnson, a Richard Nixon, a Ronald Reagan, a Bill Clinton, or a Barack Obama, they didn’t overcome humble origins or broken families. Mr Romney’s background is alien to most Americans not because he descends from polygamists but because his father was a governor of Michigan, an automobile company chief executive and a presidential candidate.
In his attempt to overcome his privileged origins, the unloved candidate struggles to establish his plain-folks ordinariness in ways that inevitably backfire. He touts his plebian tastes – pick-up trucks, country music, trashy food – and inevitably overdoes it or gets the background music completely wrong. Mr Gore’s attempt to look less like a Washington politician yielded the “earth tones” fiasco. Mr Kerry asked for his Philly cheese-steak with Swiss cheese, and was photographed nibbling at the alien object rather than tucking into it, as one does. Mr Romney defended his claims as a sportsman by asserting that he had been hunting for rodents and varmints “more than two times.”
The public usually picks up on this authenticity gap – the space between who the candidate really is and how he wants to be seen. In each case, the problem manifests itself in a slightly different way. A technocrat by nature, Mr Gore disliked the performative side of politics. He wildly over-compensated for this by angrily shouting his speeches at rallies, and demonstrating his ardour for his now ex-wife with a cringe-making soul kiss at the Democratic Convention. His hyperbolic passion on the campaign trail made it a simple matter for Republicans to brand Mr Gore as a compulsive exaggerator who claimed to have invented the internet. Mr Kerry’s problem was that he was pompous, too senatorial and loved of the sound of his own voice. This allowed the Bush reelection campaign in 2004 to paint him as “French”: an effete snob and an unprincipled flip-flopper.
Even more than Gore and Kerry, Mr Romney is running away from his own perfection. He must grapple with the affliction of excessive handsomeness, mussing his hair just so before appearances to avoid looking like a television anchorman. He struggles to seem ordinary despite his riches. But anything Mr Romney does to downplay his wealth merely highlights the vastness of it, his personal fortune estimated at more than $250m. And for the time being, at least, Mr Romney must disguise his reasonableness, his record of businesslike practicality and his ideological moderation. The number of people who can sympathise with such problems is very small indeed.
The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of ‘The Bush Tragedy’