Beyond Etch A Sketch: Voters Wonder, Which Mitt Would Govern?

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It's unclear whether they'd be electing the data-driven pragmatist or the newly minted ideologue -- and that uncertainty could kill his candidacy.

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Consider, if you will, the career of a true conservative. Ronald Reagan almost always knew what to say to his base. A former Democrat who grew disaffected from the politics of Hollywood -- "the only place in the country where the billionaires are liberals," Bill Maher once cracked -- Reagan had the zeal of the convert. He became a movement conservative with a knack for memorizing lines. He had "the music and the lyrics, the whole song sheet," says Tony Dolan, Reagan's former speechwriter, who is backing Newt Gingrich as the closest thing he can find to RR.

Reagan led the conservative movement to a rebirth after Barry Goldwater was trounced in 1964, and he did it by embracing basic truths -- fewer taxes, less government, tough defense -- on his own, says Martin Anderson, his former top economic aide. "He had worked out the whole philosophy himself going back to the 1960s, even the question of how you attack the Soviet Union without going to war." Even when Reagan was accused of flip-flopping from moderate stances he took as California governor, he still "had the ability to pithily state the doctrine," adds his biographer, Lou Cannon.

Now examine a very different kind of conservative. Mitt Romney's conservatism, the "small c" kind, was more lived than thought out. It was not the consciously adopted theoretical construct that Reagan found. For Romney, growing up in a socially conservative Mormon home in Michigan, conservatism was part of the background, something in the air. Watching the rise of his revered father, George Romney, as a governor and then presidential candidate, Mitt was enticed by politics as a teen, but for years he would quote his dad's advice: "Don't get into politics as your profession .... Get into the world of the real economy. And if someday you're able to make a contribution, do it," according to The Real Romney, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman's new book. George Romney himself took this path, running American Motors and then announcing to his family one day, "You know, I think I'm going to run for governor. Should I run as a Republican or a Democrat?"

As with his father -- who walked out of the 1964 GOP convention and refused to endorse Goldwater -- the younger Romney's lack of movement credentials vexes the base today. But Mitt's identity problem goes much deeper than George's. Although the son is already much closer to the presidency than his father ever got, the younger Romney's success comes at a time when the GOP electorate has veered right and vowed not to compromise. And because Romney, trying to establish some conservative bona fides, has run an ideological primary campaign to the right of his career as a numbers-crunching businessman and middle-of-the road Massachusetts governor, both moderates and those on the right are uncertain about who he really is or what he stands for. His own campaign has internalized the identity crisis: On CNN Wednesday, Romney's communications director compared his fall campaign strategy to resetting an Etch A Sketch.

Uncertainty is not a ticket to the White House, that much is clear. Yet voters today can't really know whether they're pulling the lever for the pragmatist or the newly minted ideologue. Romney needs to persuade conservatives--some of them, anyway--to win the Republican nomination, and then independents and centrists to win in November. Is that even possible, considering that Romney may now have the worst favorability rating in presidential-election history, according to Newsweek?

Many people say that Mitt Romney is hard to know personally -- stiff and removed, in a patrician way. But Romney's awkwardness may also be evidence of internal conflict and self-alienation: He is a man who has been forced to behave in a way foreign to his true self, according to some analysts. "He is twisting himself into a pretzel," says the presidential historian Robert Dallek, who trained as a psychoanalyst. It's no surprise, really, that Romney looks so uncomfortable on the campaign trail, insisting that he is "severely conservative."

His natural confidence (he was a golden boy his whole life) is gone, and he looks like a man responding to signals from voters, rather than leading them in Reagan-like fashion. One recent example: Even after briefly finding the courage to insist he would not "set my hair on fire" and adopt extremist rhetoric, Romney quailed at the idea of criticizing Rush Limbaugh for referring to a Georgetown Law student as a "slut." "Those would not have been the words I would have used," Romney said.

It was not exactly a Sister Souljah moment. But Romney may need such a self-defining moment, or a series of them -- when he honestly tells the country what he really believes, even if it offends the right -- if he wants Americans to know whom they're voting for.

A GOVERNOR'S EDUCATION

After his stints as a Mormon missionary in France and an undergrad at Stanford and Brigham Young, Romney got a Harvard law degree at the urging of his father, by then a Cabinet secretary and a vociferous symbol of the very GOP centrism that the Goldwater/Reagan movement rose up against. But what he mostly wanted was to plunge into the heart of capitalism. Two decades of phenomenally successful data wizardry at Bain Capital followed, turning him into a fiscally conservative pragmatist.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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