Mitt Romney's Rusty Debut

A line about hanging Obama didn't help an otherwise bad Friday-night speech in New Hampshire

Romney at NH dinner - Jim Cole AP - banner.jpg

Last night's Republican gathering in Manchester, New Hampshire was touted as a "summit" on jobs and the economy by its sponsor, the local chapter of Americans for Prosperity, and it included five Republican presidential hopefuls. Unofficially, it was Mitt Romney's debut as a 2012 candidate. There have been several iterations of Romney-the-politician over the years. The 2011 vintage is said to differ from the 2007-08 vintage mainly in being less singularly fixated on social conservatism, more focused on the economy, and more "relaxed," which, in politics, generally means shedding your necktie.

Romney, sans necktie, looked a little older, a bit whiter in the temples, tanned and rested. Whatever product he once used in his hair he now seems to be using less of. His expensive sports coat and patrician mien gave him a country club aspect that probably wasn't quite what he was aiming for, but then Romney was off in just about every facet of his performance.

The format didn't help anybody. Beginning with Tim Pawlenty, each candidate spoke for eight minutes and then took one or two questions from an AFP official on stage. There was no debate and the question were softballs; no was going to be challenged. So the evening became a competition to see who could spin the most outlandish conservative fantasy. Pawlenty had the misfortune of going first and might not have realized what a gimme the event was going to be. He called only for "getting the government off our backs," made the customary paeans to American greatness, and used the question-and-answer segment to apologize profusely for having once supported cap and trade ("I changed my position...it was a mistake, I'm stupid and I'm sorry...it was ham-fisted...I no longer have that position...it was really ham-fisted").

Herman Cain upstaged him by specifically calling to lower the corporate income tax, the personal income tax, temporarily abolish the payroll tax (individual and employer), abolish the capital gains tax, repatriate profits from overseas (abolishing any taxes on those profits), and, the coup de grace, declaring that all this would pay for itself by spurring economic growth.

Michele Bachmann called for an immediate 25 percent cut in federal discretionary spending, the cancellation of outstanding stimulus projects, and the privatization of vaccine development (she cited polio as an example). The debt ceiling? Keep it right where it is. She joined Cain in calling for the abolition of the capital gains tax, the "death tax," proposed limiting income-tax rates to 20 percent, and then decided to scrap the federal tax code outright. "Let's get rid of what we've got and start over," she said.

Romney either chose to wing it or is simply rusty from not having been on the campaign trail. Though practically alone among the GOP candidates in not pandering to the fringes by questioning Obama's citizenship, he made the strange choice to open with a birther joke about how, when Obama released his birth certificate last week, "there was no one more disappointed than that amiable, know-it-all windbag--Joe Biden." Romney didn't have a bullet-point fantasy list of tax cuts to abolish, so instead he parceled out bits of his old stump speech with charges that Obama had no private-sector experience and is trying to "Europeanize" America.

Romney remains an exceptionally unnatural public speaker. To convey passion and excitement, he raises the pitch of his voice and imbues it with urgency. But it never quite clicks. His tone and affect are like that of an adult doing a dramatic reading of a pirate story to a wide-eyed three year old. It doesn't help that he speaks too quickly and often trips over his lines. At points during his speech, Romney seemed to slip into a frenzy and start madly free associating economic buzzwords.

This hurt him during the question-and-answer period when, in response to a question about high gas prices, he blurted out a Jimmy Carter-Barack Obama comparison about how just as Reagan had hung the "misery index" around Carter's neck, so, too, would Republicans have to "hang" Obama with the country's current economic hardship. Romney repeated the "we're going to hang him" locution once more and then, all of a sudden, in mid-sentence, seemed to realize that metaphors about hanging a black man probably wouldn't redound to his political benefit. He stammered that he meant it metaphorically, that "you have to be careful what you say."

Romney seemed so panicked by the slip up that he rushed ahead to explain how gas prices were set, and briefly and inadvertently shed his "candidate" persona and reverted to "businessman"--and then he gave a cogent and authoritative mini-briefing on how prices are set by the expectation of future supply and demand, and thus could be brought down with the right energy policy. No pandering, no buzzword, no mawkish invocation of American exceptionalism. If that Romney were ever to emerge for a sustained period, it's hard to imagine who could challenge him for the nomination.

Image credit: Jim Cole/AP

Drop-down image credit: AP

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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