In as much as it is possible to feel sympathy for a man seeking the American presidency while possessing a $250m fortune, Mitt Romney is an unusually pitiful figure. He may yet win the Michigan primary tonight and he remains the most probable eventual nominee but there is a sense, right now anyway, in which whatever happens next Romney will leave Michigan a diminished figure.
Whatever happens tonight he will retain a hefty lead in the delegate count (and he will have won Arizona too) but Michigan, no matter how rightly-sized its trees may be, has hurt Romney. It’s no way to treat a man who calls the Wolverine state his home. But is it really his home? Where is he from? What is his hinterland? Answer these questions – or explain why Romney cannot answer them – and you begin to appreciate, I think, why Romney hasn’t yet knocked-out his impossible rivals.
Mitt Romney evidently wants to be liked. Perhaps too much. But his attempts to empathise with "ordinary folks" are barely more successful than were John Kerry’s. If you doubt this, consider Mitt’s experience of hunting "varmints" mostly. You see what he’s trying to do, but it just doesn’t quite work. There’s a goofy quality to Romney’s attempts to empathise with "real folks" too. He never strikes the right tone; he’s always trying too hard.
Trapped by the conservative movement’s anti-elitism, Romney cannot be who he really is either. His father was a governor and his mother ran for the US Senate and Romney’s own career, replete with compromise and trimming and fudge and slipperiness though it is, is a witness list for a prosecution case putting the old elites on trial. This might not have mattered quite so much 20 years ago. But the Great Crash of 2008 has made a liability of Romney’s wealth. Here again, an old strength has rusted. In equal measure, the Man from Bain is a product of Wall Street excellence and excess. Neither is fashionable right now.
That helps explain why he has struggled to put Rick Santorum away. Santorum is not a poor man either but in an era when voting is often an expression of one’s own identity he speaks to a type of America – blue-collar, obsessed with culture – that’s forever beyond Mitt Romney’s reach. (Some of it is beyond Barack Obama’s grasp too.) Romney is a problem-solver and a technocrat; neither is fashionable right now. At least, neither is fashionable in this Republican primary.
John McCain was mocked for forgetting how many houses he owned but no-one ever doubted his cultural background. You could disagree with McCain on policy (to the extent McCain was ever really interested in policy) but his service history was essentially unimpeachable. It formed McCain and gave voters a story they could believe in. That story wasn’t necessarily wholly relevant to life in the Oval Office but, by god, at least it was real. You got an idea of McCain as a man.
You dont get that with Romney. Worse still for Romney, he cannot copper-bottom his candidacy with culture. This is not just a question of money or class but, unavoidably, one of religion.
For understandable reasons he is keen to avoid making his candidacy a referendum on Mormonism. But he cannot talk about who he is without talking about Mormonism. And talking about Mormonism makes his candidacy some kind of referendum on Mormonism. So Romney is doomed to be the Man from Nowhere, a candidate without bottom who is, and can only be, defined by his record in office and the wealth he accumulated at Bain. In some elections this might be enough; it may not be on this occasion.
One example: during a discussion on immigration in one of the Florida debates, Romney reminded viewers that his father had been born in Mexico. Interesting! His family was driven out of Mexico by the 1912 revolution. They lost most of what they’d built in Mexico and had to start again north of the Rio Grande. and they made a great success of themselves. Poor Romney can’t make a big deal of his own family’s unusual, in some ways splendid, story since the Romneys were only in Mexico because they’d been driven out of the United States in 1882 after Mormon polygamy was outlawed. Mitt’s great-grandfather fled to Mexico to begin again with his three wives and 12 children. Romney cannot emphasise the uplifting part of his family story without also acknowledging its darker aspect. Romney’s family held fast to their beliefs but Romney cannot make a virtue of this either. Similarly, he cannot or will not talk about his experiences as a lay Bishop because this too opens the (possibly unfair) "Mormon thing".
It leaves him as a candidate without a cultural hinterland seeking to lead a party for whom culture – and attitude – is more satisfying than policy or plausibility.
Is Romney from Utah? Massachusetts? Michigan? Even California? A little bit of each and thus nowhere at all. The contrast with another candidate with few fixed places to call home is useful. Obama’s classless, geographically-diffused background proved advantageous. It offered a measure of reassurance: this was not a ghetto axe-grinder. No Al Sharpton, he. Obama’s cosmopolitan background – Kenya, Indonesia, Kansas, Hawaii, New York City, Harvard, Chicago – may have disturbed some voters but it promised freshness and glamour to many others. If Romney is tainted by his insider, elite status, Obama was a peerless outsider, ready to begin a new chapter in the great American story.
(Since Nixon almost every President has made a virtue of "outsider" status. The only exceptions: the two Bushes but even Young George cloaked his patrician heritage in Texas swagger. Even his propensity for malapropism was spun as evidence of some brand of folksy authenticity. And besides, he was up against Al Gore.)
I digress. Obama has been a politician onto whom Americans of all colours and beliefs could project their hopes (and, yes, sometimes their fears too). Many successful politicians have this chameleon-like quality (think of Tony Blair) but few have beaten Obama in this respect. Mitt Romney cannot. Obama has the great good fortune of being a politician whom many voters want to like even if, upon closer inspection, they are not always sure they really do like him.
The very things that make Romney a plausible candidate – his executive experience, his evident (or at least relative) command of policy, his flexibility, his own successes – are also some of the factors that make it difficult for Romney to persuade voters he’s the real thing. He’s unavoidably one of the elite at a time when America’s financial and political elites carry a whiff of failure. Worse than mere failure actually, since the elites retain a sense of entitlement too. This is a poor time to be part of the political establishment or the financial super-class; it’s a rotten time to be part of both.
If all this is the case and Romney still actually wins the nomination then, in some ways, he will have pulled off one hell of a trick. The Republican party in its present mood is not built to welcome the likes of Mitt Romney. All his advantages – save perhaps financial muscle – have been compromised and yet he remains the favourite. Doubtless this owes much to his impossibly implausible opponents but its own small way it will be an achievement if the Man from Nowhere actually prevails.