More than his Mormonism, more than his many homes and his ham-handed dismissal of the other 47 percent, the single-biggest reason Mitt Romney won't be president is nested in this sentence of a Washington Post profile:
"If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to re-brand himself as authentic, warts and all, and central to that mission is making public what for so long he kept private."
It won't work. Beyond the obvious point—you can't fake authenticity, Mitt—there is a cancer in the Romney body politic that even eleventh-hour sincerity won't cure: Voters don't trust him.
Once you're revealed as a serial phony, you can't lose two presidential races and shout, "Do over!" You can't convince voters that your forked tongue now spoons hard truth. You can't snap your fingers and convert your bull to Bulworth.
Especially in 2016—when the Internet gives voters instant access to a record of flip-flops that, in pure numbers and severity, suggest that Romney is not merely a politician who has "evolved" or "matured." He either abandons his convictions when political opportunity strikes—or he has none.
A short list of issues on which Romney has been both for and against: the minimum wage, stem-cell research, immigration reform, Social Security reform, campaign spending limits, an assault-weapons ban, bailing out banks and Detroit, capital-gains tax breaks, carbon limits to ease climate change, and a woman's right to choose abortion.
And, of course, Romney inspired Obamacare before he ran against it.
You can't be seen as standing for nothing in 2016—not when the rising generation of voters is extraordinarily purpose-driven. Polls consistently show that among the distinctive traits of so-called millennials is an affinity for brands that tap their desire to be a part of something greater than themselves. Whether it's a product in the shared economy, like Airbnb, or a fan-friendly musician like Taylor Swift, the typical milliennial demands authenticity—and has a good eye for it.
These digital natives use technology to authenticate the products they buy, the brands they back, and the causes they support. Perhaps better than their parents and grandparents, young voters can spot a phony. They won't buy Romney.
The shame here is that Romney is a decent guy. He was a good governor and might make a good president, especially if he has learned from his fundamental mistake. More from the Philip Rucker piece in The Post:
He rarely discussed his religious beliefs and practices in his failed 2008 and 2012 races, often confronting suspicion and bigotry with silence as his political consultants urged him to play down his Mormonism.
Now, Romney speaks openly about his service as a lay pastor in the Mormon church; recites Scripture to audiences; muses about salvation and the prophet; urges students to marry young and "have a quiver full of kids"; and even cracks jokes about Joseph Smith's polygamy.
Romney wants to make poverty a pillar of his campaign, and links that cause to his faith. He now calls climate change a man-made problem that must be tackled. Liberal blogger Greg Sargent, who also writes for The Post, made a strong counterintuitive argument that it's unfair to mock Romney 3.0.
The problem wasn't that Romney failed to put enough effort into being himself. It's that he didn't know how to do that without triggering the media pile-on gaffe rule.
Sargent may be right. New media may make it impossible for Romney or any presidential candidate to avoid overinflated quasi-controversies, like when Romney said, "I like being able to fire people who provide service to me." Lost in the gaffe grinder was the fact that Romney was actually arguing that he liked the option of replacing sub-par health policies.
I believe voters are smart enough to adapt their decision-making process to the times. Their desire for competence and credibility will override their impatience and cynicism. They will give benefit of doubt to candidates who adapt—those who create a campaign style fitting the times: open, honest, nimble, and never perfect.
Like a start-up business, a 21st-century campaign can't be afraid of going big, or of failing.
Hillary Clinton has a related challenge. Her authenticity problem is less about policy shifts than about what her persona reflects: Status quo politics, Washington establishment, decades-old political baggage and calculation. In a 2013 column ("Memo to Hillary Clinton: You're the Problem"), I channeled the advice of her most intimate advisers. The first two items:
Accessible. Be a constant presence on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media (you, not your staff). Surround yourself all day with reporters and photographers. Exhaust them with "¦ you. Make John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" look like a buttoned-down operation. Operate with a flexible schedule that allows for off-the-cuff wonderfulness.
Honest and Authentic. Take tough stands and state them clearly. Make mistakes and own up to them. As a matter of fact, the only thing we should schedule for you every day is the "Daily Mistake and Apology." We're kidding ... sort of.
I would give the same advice to Romney, who I suspect is finally revealing his genuine self. I just think it's too late.