The Election—II

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama at the beginning of the first presidential debate, Denver, October 3, 2012

Frank Rich

For all the liberal nail-biting about the presidential campaign of 2012, and for all the entertaining journalistic updates on the daily horse race, the fundamental story has remained unchanged (and not terribly suspenseful) all year. The Republican Party’s angry and highly motivated conservative base—possessed by loathing of Barack Obama and his devious schemes to turn America into Sweden—could not find a plausible candidate to lead its crusade. Assuming that Obama retrieves the A game he failed to bring to his convention address and first debate, the right now faces the serious prospect of defeat in what it saw as a can’t-miss election in which a sluggish economic recovery, a much-vilified health care law, and the public’s presumed disenchantment with an incompetent president were all supposed to guarantee victory.

The first draft of history, especially as written by Charles Krauthammer, Peggy Noonan, and their fellow travelers at Fox News, may well tell us that it was all Mitt Romney’s fault. Such an oversimplification would be designed to bury their own embarrassing record of getting behind a nominee whose career-long penchant for political malpractice has not exactly been a state secret. Still, Romney’s early dreadfulness as a candidate was breathtaking. For a while he had the highest negative poll ratings of any major-party presidential nominee in modern polling history. He has no fixed principles, and seemingly no fixed abode. (Can anyone say with authority whether his principal home is in New Hampshire, California, or Massachusetts?) For its part, his campaign has had no compass either, veering off at the slightest distraction from its stated strategy (a laser focus on the unemployment rate and Obama’s failure to ameliorate it).

As a retail campaigner, Romney’s human skills fall somewhere between those of Richard Nixon and Hal the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He does not know how to speak American English (e.g., “sport” for “sports”). And he has remained a mystery man to voters no matter what the full-press efforts to “humanize” him. That’s because three of the four main planks of his biography (his career in equity capital at Bain, his moderate tenure as governor of Massachusetts, and his lifelong devotion to the Church of Latter-Day Saints) were skirted whenever possible by Romney and his handlers out of fear that the details could scare away various sectors of his own base, whether white working-class men, anti-Obamacare zealots, or evangelical Christians. The fourth item on the Romney résumé, his performance in “saving” the 2002 Winter Olympics, was muddied by the candidate when he kicked off his tour abroad by insulting Britain’s conservative leadership on its management of what would prove to be a stellar Summer Olympics in London.

What’s now half-forgotten in the pileup of Romney’s…

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