My Mitt Romney Problem (And Yours?)

Watch this ad:



"In the next ten years, we'll see more progress, more change, than the world has seen in the last ten centuries."

Mitt Romney is an immensely talented and accomplished figure. In many ways, he looks like an ideal antidote to George W. Bush – an “MBA President” who actually knows how to run a business, a Republican politician who’s smooth and articulate rather than self-conscious and tongue-tied, a conservative who’s more comfortable with meritocracy than cronyism, a would-be reformer who actually cares about policy detail. Eighteen months ago, Romney stood out as the thinking conservative’s candidate, and it seemed like every smart young right-winger I talked to was leaning his way, or even planning on going to work for him.

That was then; this is now. With five or so hours to go till the Iowa Caucuses, Mitt Romney has to be judged the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, but it's awfully hard to find anyone not named Hugh Hewitt who seems excited about the prospect. More than enough ink has been spilled on how his political inauthenticity, his consultant-ish pursuit of ideological correctness, has undermined any excitement surrounding his candidacy, replacing it with the resigned, "he's the best we can do" thinking that undergirds the NR endorsement and others like it. (David Brooks' column this weekend offers, I think, the last word on the subject.) For my part, though, the most alienating and off-putting quality of the Romney campaign hasn't been what's he’s said, but how he’s said it - the words he's chosen and the tone he's employed, which have made following the Romney campaign the equivalent of listening to nails drawn across a chalkboard.

I'm talking like ads like the above, where Romney comes across as Ray Kurzweil crossed with Joel Osteen. I'm talking about the way he sounded when he burst out with his famous "we ought to double Guantanamo" line - like an ad man proposing a brilliant new sales pitch, not a would-be President grappling with a difficult issue. I'm talking about how phony he seems when he puts on his most serious face and talks about the looming threat of an "international jihadist Caliphate." I'm not talking about his flip-flops, but the graceless way he flip-flops; as Ryan Lizza wrote, "he not only shifts positions; he often claims to be the most passionate advocate of his new stances," which makes all those (equally-passionate) old YouTube clips all the more damaging. And I'm talking about the way the off-message Mitt seems no better than the on-message Mitt: the former seems phony, but the latter ranges from tone-deaf to just plain weird.

I still think Mitt Romney might make a good President. But that's based on his resume and his record; based on the campaign he's run, I'm pulling hard against him. I've been hoping for a candidate to emerge from the Republican primary who's at once electable in November and interested in reforming the GOP; at the moment, Romney looks like loser on both counts. And by golly, he annoys the ever-living heck out of me.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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