A Man Apart
The Real Romney
By Michael Kranish & Scott Helman
By R.B. Scott
Lyons Press, 2012
By Mitt Romney, with Timothy Robinson
Regnery, 2004, 2007
By Mitt Romney
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010, 2011
All politicians lie. But lying politicians are forgiven if they appear to accomplish things, and they take comfort in the nurturing effect of voter apathy. People have less patience for a breed I shall call phonies.
Phonies are liars, too, but there is a difference. Bill Clinton was an infamous liar, but he couldn’t suppress his joy in being a politician and making people love him. Reagan was the same way. George W. Bush could not hide the fact that he was, despite his past, an exceptionally average man—many loved him for it and others hated him, but no one thought he was a phony. His father was not known for being a serial liar, and though he exuded a patrician remove, it was genuine and tolerable, at least for a while. Barack Obama is a different character, more at home with high principle and moral abstraction than he is with Clinton’s folksy explication, but he wears informality and stately reserve with ease.
Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for President, never looks at ease. Instead he radiates a constant buzz of nervous ambition: answering questions too fast, blurting out strange jokes, doing his best to seem comfortable or project strength but never quite attaining the appearance of conviction. This can’t be ascribed to awkwardness alone. Romney’s problem is that his ideology morphs with every run for office, and he lies about things big and small. He is not only estranged but completely untrustworthy, and that’s why so many people find him so dislikable.
A few examples: he was for abortion choice and now he’s against it. He disparaged no-tax pledges and now he signs them. He disclaimed Ronald Reagan and then claimed he was a personal hero. He thought Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was silly and now claims it’s sound policy. He believed tax-paying illegal immigrants should be naturalized, and now he doesn’t. He dissociated himself from the NRA and now he sports a membership. He supported stem-cell research, and now he doesn’t. He claimed Massachusetts’ health care reform was a model for the nation, and now he says it isn’t. He supported gay rights and now speaks as though gays are toxic. These shifts can’t be chalked up to a straightforward rightward conversion either. To take one recent example, he’s been stating for two years that he will repeal the Affordable Care Act on his first day in office, but when he slid in the polls after the Democratic convention he suddenly said he would keep parts of it, then changed his mind the next day.
This is a truncated list, but you get the point. And yet, call him just a phony and you slight the fact that his rhetoric has been growing more extreme for half a decade, that his policies are dangerous and unfair across the board, and that he’s surrounding himself with some very questionable people. The glaring paradox of Mitt Romney’s present incarnation is that most people still don’t know what to do with him. They react to each event and project backward. Is he a right-wing plutocrat or a hollow man who will do anything to win?
The infamous “47 percent” video seemed to give an answer. It was recorded surreptitiously during a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser at the home of a wealthy donor in Boca Raton. It’s full of awful quotes about the economy, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about Barack Obama, but the most damning snippet was in response to a well-heeled John Galt wannabe who asked, in all seriousness, this question:
For the last three years, all everybody’s been told is, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?
Romney answered him forcefully, confidently.
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That-that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like.
Politicians whine all the time about their quotes being taken out of context, and then turn around and do the same to others. Romney is a particularly egregious offender. But there’s no mistake here: Ayn Rand herself could not have put it better. And the quote was so outside the bounds of normal presidential campaign rhetoric that commentators took it as a revelation. Perhaps it is. Then again, Romney is so ambitious, and such a phony, that he may have just been telling his questioner exactly what he wanted to hear.
The ultimate truth is probably unknowable, but a closer look at Romney’s life will bring us nearer to an answer, to that question and another: whether the question of Romney’s sincerity matters at all.
Though they proselytize and are by some counts the fastest-growing religion in the world, Mormons have usually been a quiet presence in American culture. Their politicians tend to come from the West (all 15 Mormon congressmen do), near the mother church, and besides George and Mitt Romney, none have been serious contenders for the Presidency. Americans in public life talk a lot about God but they usually do so in fuzzy, universal terms, and Mormons, ever wary of the schisms between their faith and mainstream Christianity, are no exception. Mitt Romney has been especially cautious.
There is some evidence that his religion played a small but important role in his loss in the 2008 Republican primaries, but there’s not much reason to think that any of Mormonism’s stranger beliefs (that the Second Coming will be in Missouri, for instance) could have any direct bearing on a President Romney’s decisions. Reagan took scheduling advice from his wife’s astrologer and George W. Bush believed in the Apocalypse, but their failures sprang from the axioms of the economic and foreign policy establishment – from secular faiths, in other words.
Mormonism’s cultural features are more important. The stress it places on work and achievement, and its emphasis on the traditional family (polygamy was banned by the church in 1890), while not unique to Mormonism, are intensely cultivated by church leadership and devout families like the Romneys. R.B. Scott, Mormon author of the engaging but uneven Mitt Romney, one of only two credible Romney biographies, puts it this way:
A Mormon parent’s high-flown soliloquy to his newborn child that “someday, perhaps, you will be president” is a little more than idle grandiloquence. Buried in the heady hyperbole is heavy counsel that will be revisited regularly as the child matures: Live your life in such a way that you could be president if called upon—president of the church or president of the nation… If his life unfolds according to plan, the child will become actively engaged in the world around him at an early age. First, he will learn to follow the lead of trusted adults and work together as part of a team. While teaching individual responsibility and accountability, the Mormon culture produces many opportunities for children to experience the pulling power of a well-led, coordinated team, with each member playing an important leadership role by doing his or her particular job well.
Children learn concepts and methods that such respected motivational speakers and organizational consultants as Stephen Covey and Clayton Christenson, both Mormons, have transformed into best-selling books and rousing PowerPoint presentations they peddle for tens of thousands of dollars to the captains and wannabes of Fortune 1000 companies throughout the world.
The Mormon system teaches these principles by example, and most important of all, it engages. From top to bottom it is a system that is totally dependent on participation. Young people learn early that if they don’t show up for religious services on Sunday, they will be missed. If they drop the ball on a project, someone will cover them, but their absence will be noted.
There’s a more-than-passing resemblance here to the prosperity gospel that is thriving in the evangelical community, but this creed also contains seeds of isolation, grounded as it is in the close-knit families and churches of a little-understood minority religion. Indeed, most people who have worked with Mitt Romney in business and politics describe him as guarded and incurious about those around him, a remote person who reserves his inner thoughts and strongest feelings for his family and a few fellow Mormons.
Mixed with the talk about cars and business was an ongoing emphasis on living the Mormon life. The Romneys were one of the Mormon faith’s leading families. George had followed family tradition and regularly delivered talks at the local Mormon church as well as at the dinner table…
The Mormon faith infused Mitt’s life, and he was expected to be a leader from the start, immersing himself in theology and delivering sermons in his teens…
George emphasized to his children how one Romney after another had excelled by following the tenets of their faith…George instructed Mitt to follow what he called a “three point formula for joyous achievement.” It was one of his favorite pieces of advice, and it came directly from Mormon doctrine: “Search diligently, pray always and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has no ordained ministry: instead, leadership roles are given to lay members. Like most Christian sects, women are not allowed to hold leadership positions, but all men considered “worthy” are ordained to the priesthood, which allows them to preside over services, readings and ceremonies. Mitt, like his father, would maintain two occupations in adulthood, one religious – as head of the Belmont ward and then the Boston stake in Massachusetts – and one in business and politics.
A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.
The story was corroborated by four other students, and when it surfaced in May this year Romney denied any memory of the attack (his campaign claimed that “anyone who knows [him] knows that he doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone in his body”), then issued a general apology later that same day, saying he had grown into a different person.
If the incident should have any bearing at all on our view of Romney today, it is to show that the social conformity and aversion to gays he has displayed throughout his adult life are deeply rooted. Perhaps one of the reasons he claimed to be such a champion for gay rights when he ran for governor was that he had a reputation for being a homophobe. In 1994 the Boston Globe ran a story claiming that in the midst of a talk about family values, which included a denouncement of premarital sex, Romney, in his capacity as stake president, castigated a ward under his purview for allowing the “sickness” of homosexuality to go on unchallenged.
Speaking last fall to a Mormon Church gathering, Mitt Romney, then on the verge of launching a bid for a US Senate seat, expressed dismay at reports of homosexual behavior in the group and denounced homosexuality as “perverse,” according to several people present at the meeting…
“He said he was appalled at the incidence of homosexuals in the congregation,” said Rick Rawlins, a 32-year-old Mormon who had previously served as a counselor to the ward’s bishop. “He went on to say that he found homosexuality both perverse and reprehensible.”
Political opponents have also tried to tie Romney to his church’s history of racism, though here they have no ground to stand on. LDS doctrine barred African Americans from the priesthood until 1978, and the Book of Mormon has several racist passages (one states, in faux King James-ese, that if blacks accept the true gospel “their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and delightsome people”), but George Romney believed strongly in racial equality, and in fact often clashed with church leadership on the issue. Mitt Romney’s unpopularity among blacks has more to do with the fact that he is a Republican, and that he has adopted some of the racially coded attacks they have been deploying against Obama since before he took office.
The son often suffers from comparisons to the father, who Mitt idolized and hoped to succeed. George Romney was a moderate Republican in the mid-century patrician mold, and he had a reputation for frankness. It made him popular but also cost him dearly. He lost any chance at beating Nixon in the 1968 Republican primaries when he claimed that his early support for the war in Vietnam was predicated on the “brainwashing” he had be subjected to by generals and consular officials on a Senate trip. One of the cardinal rules of American politics is that you can never criticize anyone in the military or second-guess anything it is doing, and Mitt certainly never forgot the lesson. Kranish and Helman interviewed Romney’s sister Jane, who said, “The brainwash thing—has that affected us? You bet. Mitt is naturally a diplomat, but I think that made him more so. He’s not going to put himself out on a limb. He’s more cautious, more scripted.”
After Cranbrook Mitt spent a year at Stanford, an odd place to picture him then because it was just coming to experience the same social unrest and anti-war protests that were erupting at other campuses around the country. Romney was again confronted with strange people he didn’t understand, and again he recoiled. He spent many hours during school nights talking with fellow conservatives about politics, sharing in a mutual revulsion toward protestors and their tactics. Romney befriended several sons of Republican leaders and became a leading member of the Stanford Republican Club. As Kranish and Helman put it, “many of his classmates were headed in the opposite direction.” One of the most striking pictures of the young Mitt Romney shows him at the head of a counter-protest, carrying a sign that says SPEAK OUT! DON’T SIT IN! The campus protest movement would further intensify, turning many right-wing students to “full-scale hippies,” in the words of David Harris, fellow student and future husband to singer Joan Baez. By the time this happened, Mitt Romney was far away.
Romney was by all accounts a diligent student of French and an upbeat, tireless worker. The people he encountered were by turns offended and bemused by his obscure American gospel, and keen to engage him on politics and foreign policy. Romney would try to defend or explain his country’s policies, though after his father voiced his war skepticism publicly, Mitt was more circumspect when talking about Vietnam. To break this wall Romney dreamt up new ways to hold his audience’s attention, like “singing, basketball exhibitions, archeology [sic] lectures,” he recounted in a letter to his parents. “On the occasions when he was allowed to deliver his full pitch,” Kranish and Helman write,
it went something like this, according to [fellow missionary Dane] McBride. Romney and his partner would explain that they were students from the United States who interrupted their studies to tell the French that they had a “great message” about Jesus Christ’s ministry. They said that Christ’s ministry “extended far beyond the small area in which he walked. . . . After his resurrection he visited a civilization living in the Americas at that time.” As a result, the missionaries continued, “what we have in our Book of Mormon is another witness for Jesus Christ.” The missionaries said that at a time when people questioned whether Jesus was the son of God, “we have very strong evidence that he was who he said he was.”
Few listened, and in Catholic France, where feelings toward America were ambivalent at best, it’s not hard to see why. But in the characteristically vague terms in which he glides over his religion, Romeny claimed his faith “deepened.”
Romney encouraged his fellow missionaries to read Think and Grow Rich, a 1937 self-help book by Napoleon Hill that had been reissued in 1960. Hill, who interviewed hundreds of wealthy and famous Americans to learn the secret of success, concluded that wealth grew out of the rigorous application of personal beliefs and an ability to work with people of like-minded determination. Some of the chapter titles serve as guides to how Romney achieved success in his future careers in business and politics. Chapter 2 is titled “Desire: The Turning Point of All Achievement.” It seems no coincidence that at a missionary conference Romney gave a talk with a similar theme, about “desire” and “how we can obtain anything we want in life—if we want it badly enough.”
Here is the nub of Romney’s ideas about success and merit, a personal mythology bound up in his mind with national mythology. But when he looked homeward he saw something else, and felt alienated from the people in the streets. He found similar unrest in France during the famous protests of 1968. “The disorder appalled him,” Kranish and Helman write,
and further solidified his respect for control in a civil society… “The feeling that we had and discussed was that the world is falling apart,” McBride, his fellow missionary, said. It was that there was disorder and anarchy, and we were very grateful for the order that was in our own lives because the life of the Mormon missionaries is pretty well ordered . . . and there’s a security in that.”
Romney never returned to Stanford. Ann was already at Brigham Young University, and that’s where his friends from the mission were going; that Romney would follow was all but inevitable. At BYU, which is funded in large part by tithing donations from the church, there were few liberals to protest: according to Kranish and Helman, while Romney was there it banned homosexuality and pre-marital sex, “prohibited many rock-and-roll bands, liberal speakers and student organizations, and even long hair on male students…the president of the university enlisted students to spy on professors deemed to be liberals. Students who displayed peace signs were told to take them down.” The Romneys have tried to play up their “struggles” during this time, when they had a child (the first of five), lived in a basement apartment, travelled in a car given to Mitt by his father, and lived off stock options that would be worth nearly $400,000 in today’s dollars. Mormons of the devout, high-achieving Romney type are encouraged to marry early and have children, and BYU’s campus was full of young Mormons starting families or looking for marriage. This was the financial security and conservative social life the Romneys entered into, one they recreated for themselves wherever they went.
Romney excelled at BYU, delivering a commencement address in which he enjoined his classmates to “choose a different kind of life, that we may develop an attitude of restlessness and discomfort, not self-satisfaction… Our education should spark us to challenge ignorance and prepare to receive new truths from God.” George Romney, who dropped out of college, had long dreamt of going to Harvard Business School. He encouraged Mitt to go there as well, not only for a business degree but for one in law, too. Ann gave the idea her blessing, and in 1971 the Romneys packed up and headed for the land of Kennedys and liberal academia.
Harvard Business School was also genial to the cautious, smart and driven young man with a narrow imagination. There was little overarching theory or principle involved in academics there, just case study after case study, in which students were trained to think like managers and executives. Law school taught him to ask questions and “analyze and reconcile conflicting points of view and data,” as Kranish and Helman have it. In business this served him and his shareholders well. In politics it must have reinforced his caution.
One thing Mitt Romney has demonstrated throughout his adult life is a proclivity to isolate himself from the outside world. Life at Harvard was no different. He lived off-campus with his wife and sons (a second had been born in October) in a house in suburban Belmont, purchased with help from his father. They socialized with people who were similarly situated. A fellow student, in an interview quoted in The Real Romney, recalls that “there was nothing jaded about him, nothing skeptical, nothing ironic.”
Mitt Romney’s home life raises a question. His father George convinced his mother Lenore to give up a $50,000 contract in Hollywood to marry him and become a homemaker. Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, is a homemaker. The Romneys have five sons and they have five wives. They’re all homemakers. Scott, Kranish and Hellman barely mention this in passing, and few in the press seem to have given it much thought. Mitt Romney spends a lot of time on the campaign trail pontificating about family values, but when he thinks about family, and when he thinks about America’s families, what century is Mitt Romney thinking about?
His tenure as a religious leader – and that’s what he was, something America has never had before in a president – suggests a discouraging answer. Women, of course, are forbidden any official power in the church. So for the most part are single or divorced men. As Kranish and Helman write,
despite the all-volunteer nature of the Mormon priesthood, its lay leaders are very much part of the church’s rigid hierarchy. Those called to serve as stake presidents and bishops or leaders of local wards are fully empowered as agents of the church, and they carry great authority over their domains. Their selection is carefully vetted by church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
As a bishop of a ward from 1981 to 1986 and then president of a stake until 1994, Romney was charged with enforcing the Mormon code, which frowns on abortion, homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births, single mothers, and premarital sex. By most counts Romney was generous with his time and money. He was also an able administrator who carefully navigated the tensions inherent in guiding a conservative church among a liberal population. When a relatively liberal group of church women presented him with a list of small demands, he granted “any request he couldn’t see a reason to reject,” one woman told the authors of The Real Romney. Ann Romney, however, was “not that kind of woman,” and refused to attend any of the group’s events. Despite his accommodations, Romney still subscribed to a conservative vision of society, and when it came to more substantive issues of women’s freedom and health, his response could be nasty, even dangerous.
Peggie Hayes used to babysit for the Romneys. By the time she was twenty three, she was a divorced mother of one and pregnant with another child. At first she felt supported by the church, earning extra money organizing the Romney basement and doing odd jobs for other Mormons. One day Mitt called and asked to stop by her apartment for a chat. After a few minutes of small talk he brought up the church’s adoption agency. Hayes, a single mother, thought he misunderstood: she wanted to keep her baby. Romney repeatedly urged her to give it up, saying, according to the account she gave Kranish and Helman,
that this was what the church wanted. Hayes was deeply insulted… [and] felt intimidated. Here was Romney, who held great power as her church leader and was the head of a wealthy, prominent Belmont family, sitting in her gritty apartment making grave demands. “And then he says, ‘Well, this is what the church wants you to do, and if you don’t then you could be excommunicated for failing to follow the leadership of the church.’”
Hayes kept her baby. When her son was nine months old he had to undergo surgery for a fused skull so his brain could grow safely. She called Romney and asked him to come to the hospital to confer a blessing on the baby. He sent two people she didn’t know, and Hayes promptly quit the church.
Romney, from his seat of power, could be petulant toward people he didn’t like. One was Judy Dushku (mother of actress Eliza), who was a member of Exponent II, the group that had petitioned Romney for reforms. Dushku wanted to participate in a sacred rite in Mormonism called endowment, which, Kranish and Helman explain, “commits Mormons to a lifetime of faithfulness to the church.” (That’s a tactful gloss on the ceremony, which is a reenactment of the creation and the fall of Adam and Eve in which participants are given gestures and code words they will need to get past the angels guarding the gates of heaven, wherein they will become kings, queens, priests and priestesses) Dushku needed an endorsement from her bishop and her stake president. Her bishop happily obliged, but her stake president was Mitt Romney. As she explained to the authors:
“he says something like ‘I suspect if you’ve gotten through… the interviews, there’s nothing I can do to keep you from going to the temple’… I said, ‘Well, why would you want to keep me from going to the temple?’… He said, ‘Well, Judy, I just don’t understand why you stay in the church.’” She asked him whether he wanted her to really answer that question. “And he said, ‘No, actually, I don’t understand it, but I also don’t care. I don’t care why you do. But I can tell you one thing: You’re not my kind of Mormon.”
Romney could also be dangerously obtuse and doctrinaire. Years before his encounter with Dushku, when he was bishop of the Belmont ward, he visited a pregnant woman named Carrel Hilton Sheldon. She was in the hospital and was considering an abortion. Sheldon already had five children, and her doctors told her that a blood clot in her pelvis would make delivering the baby dangerous and that the baby would only have a 50 percent chance to live. “As your bishop,” he said, “my concern is with the child.” She explained to Romney that another doctor, who also happened to be her stake president, said “of course, you should have this abortion and then recover from the blood clot and take care of the healthy children you already had.” “I don’t believe you,” Romney shot back. “He wouldn’t say that. I’m going to call him.” When he couldn’t find the stake president he went to Sheldon’s house to speak to her family. Her father, who is now 91, told an interviewer in 2011 that “I have never been so upset about anything in my life…. He was an authoritative type of fellow who thinks he is in charge of the world.” He ordered Romney away and followed him out, to “throw him off the porch if he had paused for even a second.” Carrell sums it up by saying that Mitt had several praiseworthy qualities but was “blind to me as a human being.”
Years later, while admitting that the bishop in the article sounded “cold and heartless,“ Romney claimed that “I don’t have any memory of what she is referring to, although I certainly can’t say it could not have been me.”
That may be true, but that statement, which comes with no further explanation, is a little odd. We don’t really know what important ideas or life-altering experiences Romney may have had there, or what he may have learned that would recommend him as a presidential candidate. BCG was a fairly new sort of company, a giant in the emerging field of business consulting. Companies in various industries would hire out teams of consultants and analysts from BCG, who would work for a short period of time to help their client make more money.
Firms like BCG and Mckinsey, according to Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “believed they were bringing a newly sophisticated, quantitative approach to business, using theories and techniques to help American industry modernize. They regarded themselves as intellectuals,” and in an era before Wall Street pay ballooned into the cartoon piles of cash familiar today, “they also paid better than anyone else.” Romney again proved himself an industrious worker and an excellent analyst. In a few short years he was hired away by Bill Bain, a former BCG executive who left to start his own company.
Bain & Company was different from most consulting groups. Instead of working with anyone, they only hired themselves out to one client per industry. This exclusivity won them access to more data and better fees. Romney was Bain’s best analyst—so good, apparently, that three years in “an increasing number of clients preferred Romney over more senior partners,” Kranish and Helman write.
One of the problems with business consulting, even with powerhouses like Bain, is that their clients don’t have to listen. Essentially, consultants are just giving advice; they don’t own or control. In 1986, Bill Bain pitched Romney on something different. He and some partners were starting a new fund called Bain Capital, which would purchase companies instead of advise them. Success would mean making money off of those companies (though not necessarily making them profitable—a crucial distinction), not merely taking their fees.
Romney, who is extremely averse to risk, turned Bain down. So they negotiated, and as Bill Bain wrangled, maybe he recognized that he was dealing with someone who had dreams beyond the world of business—dreams like his father. The terms Romney finally got were astounding: if Bain Capital failed—if Romney failed—he would get his old job back, with his old salary plus any raises he would have earned in the meantime, and Bain would cover his reputation by selling the story that Romney was needed back at Bain & Company because he was such an valuable consultant.
This isn’t the version Romney sells to voters. “I left a steady job to join with some friends to start a business,” Romney said when he announced his candidacy in 2011. “It had been a dream of mine to try and build a business from the ground up. We started in a small office.” The Real Romney corrects the record: “It was a nearly risk-free opportunity with substantial financial backing—and a lucrative fallback plan in case of failure. And he had the security of knowing that he would still report to Bain and have offices just down the hall from his mentor.” Romney, as it turned out, didn’t need the safety net. He was so successful that if elected president he will be the richest man, save George Washington, to ever hold the office.
The Reagan years were heady times in corporate America. Regulations were crumbling, executive pay was ballooning, and a new ethos of the shareholder was taking over. Before the 80s, shareholders generally deferred to management, who could count on minimal interference as long as they delivered some sort of profit or provided a reasonable excuse for why they didn’t. This attitude changed quickly as the nation emerged from the Carter doldrums. Shareholders became more assertive and profit size became more important, to the point that legacy companies, which might in the past have weathered difficulty for the sake of their workers, were now firing their way toward maximum efficiency. Romney’s new firm often invested in established companies or bought into startups (your typical venture capital deal), and some, like Staples, were very successful. But Bain Capital’s specialty was something called the leveraged buyout.
In practice they can become very complicated, but leveraged buyouts rest on a simple economic formula: the transfer of wealth from the American taxpayers and the company being purchased to the purchaser, in his case Bain. The purchasing firm puts down a certain percentage of cost of the company they are buying. The rest is covered by a loan, which is actually taken out by the company that’s being purchased. The purchased company writes off the loan interest, which is very high because the company is now heavily in debt, reducing its tax rate as much as possible, which theoretically allows it to pay off more of its debt. The money saved in taxes, and in layoffs and cost cutting, goes to Bain, and Bain’s employees, who are making most of their money through shares, not salary, pay little in taxes because investments are taxed at a much lower rate than salary. This is how Romney got rich.
A handful of these no-longer-independent businesses thrived under the “discipline” that Bain imposed; more just barely survived, struggling for years to pay off debt; and many folded, at which point Bain retreated, profits in hand, and gave them up to their creditors. Job creation is incidental to this process. Romney never tried to manage the companies he purchased, as he admits in Turnaround, a tedious, autobiographical self-promotion ghostwritten in 2004:
We pursued what is called a ‘value investment strategy.’ It was not the standard investment banker approach of snatching up companies with high, sustained growth, hanging on for six months, and then flipping them for a profit. Instead we were looking for troubled companies, businesses that were not performing as well as we think they could. We would invest in these underperforming companies, using the equivalent of a mortgage to leverage up our investment. Then we would go to work to help management make their business more successful. I never actually ran one of our investments; that was left to management.
Romney was CEO of Bain Capital until 2002, when he became governor of Massachusetts. It’s the longest he ever held a job, longer even than his perpetual campaign for the president, and in all the accounts of his time at Bain there isn’t a hint of ambivalence about what he was doing—only, to judge from his rhetoric today, trust in the “creative destruction” of America’s new capitalism and his role in it. Meanwhile, Romney stayed in his bubble.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells interviewed several of Mitt’s former employees, and the Romney he sketches is familiar, a remote and risk-averse figure—Citizen Kane without pathos—evincing none of the courage he self-servingly praises in American businessmen, or any of the idealism he later attributed to himself.
“Mitt was always worried that things weren’t going to work out—he never took big risks,” one of his colleagues told me. “Everything was very measurable. I think Mitt had a tremendous amount of insecurity and fear of failure.” Romney never worked from any particular “macro theme,” any philosophy of how the economy was moving. What he employed instead was an exhausting habit of playing devil’s advocate, proposing sequential objections to a particular project or idea, until eventually, through a kind of Darwinian process, consensus was reached. “I never viewed Mitt as very decisive,” says one of his Bain Capital colleagues. “The idea was that if there’s enough argument around an issue by bright people, ultimately the data will prevail.”
Romney shut himself off not only from the jobs he was affecting, but from his employees at Bain as well.
Even for those who worked with him, Romney had an inscrutable quality: They never cursed around him and didn’t drink, and they understood that his social life would be his family life. “I always felt that Mitt viewed himself as one of the chosen few,” one of Romney’s colleagues at Bain Capital told me. “I don’t think it ever affected his ¬decision-making, but there was that overhang.”
These qualities – the caution, the flexible morality, the near-imperviousness to the perspective of an average human being – carried over into his first attempt to be a politician, his failed 1994 run for Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat.
A good place to start would be those “ideas and ideals.” Romney’s model was Republican governor Bill Weld, who campaigned as an economic conservative and a social liberal. (According to R.B. Scott, Romney also cleared his shift to the left on social issues with the church in Salt Lake City, sharing polls and visiting frequently, to the point where the higher ecclesiastics sighed at the sight of him.) “Mindful,” Kranish and Helman write,
of Bill Weld’s success in 1990 as a socially liberal Republican—and of Kennedy’s legacy as a defender of civil rights—Romney set out to prove that he would be as good as, or even better than, Kennedy in advancing those causes… [It was] a strategy conceived to win over the left-leaning state electorate. One Massachusetts Republican leader recalled a conversation with Charles Manning early on in which Manning said, “We’ve got this thing mapped out, and Mitt has bought into the idea that the key to victory here is that he’s a Bill Weld Republican.” No one, the thinking went, would be able to paint Romney as a right-winger. “That was really the foundation of the campaign,” the Republican said.
“Some of his positions seemed to be calibrated for voter approval,” the authors gently point out. Ask Romney to characterize himself and you might feel the same way: mindful of his national aspirations, he disowned the label “socially liberal,” preferring instead to call himself “socially innovative,” a phrase that could mean just about anything. Whatever you call it, he came out for gun restrictions, gay rights (though not gay marriage), abortion choice, raising the minimum wage and tying it to inflation, and came out against a cut in the capital gains tax—all positions he has since reversed. Then as now, voters had trouble believing him, but Kennedy was in such rough shape that Romney pulled even.
Unfortunately, Kennedy, like his brothers before him, wielded a ruthless campaign team. Kennedy allies, undaunted by the hypocrisy of attacking on behalf of a Catholic, hit Romney on his church’s history of discrimination and sexism. The most effective tactic, however, was to paint Romney as a heartless plutocrat: the Kennedy campaign brought out unemployed steelworkers and others to hound Romney on the trail, and the Republican candidate failed to muster an effective response (he couldn’t define himself, as political analysts would say). The Real Romney´s authors point out the obvious: “Despite his strategic mind he had failed to adequately prepare for a most predictable line of attack—criticism of his business career.” Romney, despite that strategic mind, has made the same mistake again in 2012.
Romney returned to Bain. “I basically went back to doing what I had done before, without a day’s rest,” he writes in Turnaround. Bain Capital’s best years were ahead, but Romney found himself “unsatisfied.” His next opportunity wouldn’t come for another four years, and again disclaiming self-interest, again attributing his actions to a steely resolve to help the world and serve a higher purpose… he joined the Olympics.
As Amy Davidson pointed out recently in the New Yorker,
He has a way of talking about the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics as if the festivities were a turning point in history—the sort of thing that inspires a hushed awe—and about his decision to lead them as a far, far, better thing to do than almost anyone had ever done…. one wonders if what was appealing to Romney, back when he took the job, was the idea that the Olympic Games are something no one could object to. Where is the anti-Olympic party?
Romney, through his repetitive ghostwriter, denies any base motivation:
Despite suspicions to the contrary, I had no plans to parlay the experience into political advantage… I gave very little thought at all to what I would do afterwards. Many people can’t believe that. They think that I had calculated the political benefits. But honestly, I had no idea. I saw no political connection at all. The idea of going to Utah as a way of helping me run in Massachusetts was nuts. If I wanted to run, I would have stayed in Massachusetts. And I had no appetite for staying in Utah for a political career… I was going to Utah to run the Olympics. Ann and I felt it was the right thing to do… I wanted to serve the community, not run for office.
There is some evidence that he considered a run in Utah. His tax filings suggest it, and he told the Boston Globe in 2002 that “If politics is part of the mix, which it may be, a lot of that depends on where the opportunity is.” But Massachusetts was the better fit for his Presidential aspirations, and he made the Olympics a central theme of his campaign. In doing so he saw no difficulty in exaggerating the fiscal problems that allegations of bribery to the Olympic Committee had brought, and he had no trouble impugning the reputations of some involved with the Salt Lake bid and ignoring the complicity of others who he kept on after he took over. He further neglected to mention that many local politicians, whose help he would need in any future national race, were aware of the bribery. They received free tickets. (People who complained about the price of said tickets annoyed him: “But just who should pay then? The tooth fairy?” he writes.) These oversights and exaggerations reappeared again, uncorrected, when Turnaround was published, two years after he was elected governor.
Romney had some reason to brag: the SLC games were underfunded and the people involved had little credibility. He rejiggered the administration, found millions in sponsors, and oversaw everything from merchandising to the logistics of the ceremonies. But Turnaround is nearly 400 pages of bloodless management-speak and soporific encomia to athletes, administrators, America, and Willard Mitt Romney. The selfless administrator even had pins emblazoned with his likeness made for his staff. Maybe they were a dry run for the future he was definitely, definitely not thinking about.
Romney prudently commissioned a poll, and when the results came back favorable he quietly set about erecting the skeleton of a gubernatorial campaign. He’d said previously that he would not run against a fellow Republican, but a Republican close to Romney told Kranish and Helman that “the allure of the job, and the pressure from party leaders, had been too great to resist.” He never spoke to Swift about it. Her staff picked up on it when Romney rented a large hotel ballroom, a pattern “consistent with what is, by several accounts, Romney’s aversion to confrontation if he can help it.” Smith pulled out of the race, and Romney, as a conciliatory gesture, cancelled his party.
Romney had learned from his loss to Kennedy, and the chief lesson – what any consultant will tell you is job one for viable campaign – was define character early. “Within days,” the authors of The Real Romney write, “his campaign produced television ads designed to preemptively beat back any Democratic attacks.” “I learned in my race against Senator Kennedy,” he told an interviewer, “don’t be so naïve as to just sit back and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be positive while they’re negative. That doesn’t make sense.” He also wrote a check to his own campaign for $75,000, a figure which would eventually grow to $6.3 million.
His opponent was State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, and she attacked him on abortion right out of the gate. When Romney held an official post within his church he counseled women against abortion, including, we know, one who would risk death by following his advice. As a candidate for the Senate, he claimed that he had been acting as a religious leader, but that as a Senator, he would vigorously defend a woman’s right to choose. He called himself pro-choice. But in 2001, in a letter to a Utah newspaper, he said that he no longer wished to be called pro-choice. O’Brien’s campaign naturally brought this up, whereupon Mitt Romney declared that nothing had changed, he was still pro-choice. In fact, he was also for comprehensive sex education, expanded access to emergency contraception, and state funding for family planning programs. It is a tiresome refrain, but it has to be said: Mitt Romney supports none of these positions today.
A bigger issue in 2002 was gay rights. Vermont had legalized same-sex civil unions two years before, and frightened gay marriage opponents in Massachusetts started a petition for a constitutional amendment banning non-heterosexual unions and domestic partner benefits, including bereavement leave. This was especially difficult for Romney because the petition had been signed by his wife and his son Tagg. But the future called, so he distanced himself from his family’s views. Romney was still against gay marriage and civil unions, but he assured gay leaders that they would have an ally in the State House, and that he would fight for domestic partnership benefits and anti-discrimination laws—he was an able contortionist. Of course, Romney supported none of these policies in 2008, a disposition retained in 2012.
Suffice it to say, Romney’s goal was to convince enough voters that he was a moderate, and he tried to play down his patrician roots by hiding his BMW in the garage and holding ridiculous events called “workdays,” each of which would find him in the uniform of a different blue collar worker while he did their job for a few hours. (“Massachusetts doesn’t need a governor who thinks getting in touch with working people is a costume party,” his opponent quipped.) But it was halfway through the general election and he was still losing, so the Romney campaign broke out the negative ads, and rope-a-doped O’Brien into attacking him aggressively in the debates, hoping to make her seem shrill and unbalanced. It all worked, and on November 5 Romney won by five percentage points.
His naïve ‘vision’ of a CEO governorship toasted, Romney adapted, learning how to bargain and play to the voters in order to apply pressure on the Democrats, who dominated the State House. He selected an experienced team and instituted “supersecretariats” to oversee various areas of policy, positions similar to the “czars” he now attacks Obama for creating. Some sound policy came out of all of this, including plans to fight sprawl by promoting density (a no-go for subsequent Romneys, who needed rural votes) and one to fix the state’s unemployment insurance fund, which was in the red.
His biggest challenge was the budget shortfall, which was projected to grow from $2 to $3 billion in 2004. Romney managed to close the gap, though he mangles the story in the telling. Modern Republicans, even in 2003, hate to raise taxes. Romney’s solution was to raise fees—on permits, licenses, etc., to the tune of $331 million—and thereby invest his future political reputation on a semantic distinction. He also closed tax loopholes and cracked down, ironically enough, on income sheltering. But the biggest chunk came from spending cuts, “hundreds of millions of dollars worth of reductions in state assistance,” according to Kranish and Helman, which forced communities to cut services and raise fees of their own. Romney touts his budgeting to the country in vague terms, but he also neglects to mention that the budget shortfall was overestimated by $1.2 billion. It had already begun to close itself.
The rest of Romney’s record, with one exception, is lackluster. Massachusetts’ economy was losing jobs when he took office, and though he succeeded in making the state an easier place for business, during his four years as governor Massachusetts had the fourth slowest economic growth rate in the country. He sequestered himself as he always had, and “showed little interest in the lawmakers themselves,” Kranish and Helman write. “Romney, never a backslapper, invested little in building such ties—or even in getting to know the players. And so his court consolidation plan went nowhere, his vision for higher education vanished almost without a trace.” Tom Finneran, the former Democratic House Speaker for the state, told the authors that “[former governor Bill] Weld had a genuine curiosity about the people in the building and what made them tick, and how to develop functional relationships that proved to be productive in the clinch…Romney was considerably more reserved.” “We always would talk,” another legislator told them, “about how, among the legislators, he had no idea what our names were—none. Because he was so far removed from the day-to-day operations of state government.”
Romney worked assiduously to control information, keep messaging uniform, and manage the flow of visitors. Ropes blocked off his chambers, elevators wouldn’t stop at his floor, and tape at public events dictated where people should stand. These media events were his preferred method of exerting influence. “His theory of government,” according to Democrat Salvatore DiMasi, “was I’m going to use the bully pulpit, which is the press, and beat you up so you succumb to my position.” It was never a particularly effective way to work, and Romney has forgotten or never learned from the experience. It’s the same strategy he’s using now, relying on his advantage in cash to blanket the airwaves while the Obama organization focuses on driving turnout.
Romney’s signature achievement, one he hoped would be his calling card on the national scene, was health care reform. (His official portrait as governor shows him with the bill at his side, in the style of commissions done by the old European masters.) According to Romney lore, the idea was first suggested by close friend Thomas Stemberg, the founder of Staples. Romney was supposedly dubious at first, but he assigned people to study options and data. In 2004, after a nasty campaign in which Romney-supported Republicans suffered huge losses in November, he issued a call for bipartisanship and asked everyone to work together and tackle health care. The Democrats were incredulous, but Ted Kennedy’s public praise for the idea got many to come around.
By 2004 Massachusetts had a population just shy of 6.5 million. 460,000 were uninsured—a large number but among the lowest in the country as a percentage of population. Of those, a third could afford coverage but didn’t have it, a fourth were eligible for Medicaid but un-enrolled, and the rest were unemployed or made too much for Medicaid but too little to buy insurance. Romney’s basic disposition towards business is the one area where his positions haven’t fluctuated any more than your average Washington dissembler, so mandating that employers provide coverage was out, as was an expansion of the state Medicaid program, which would entail $2 billion in new government spending. The only answer, as far as Romney was concerned, was a mandate for people to purchase insurance and subsidies for those who couldn’t afford to buy. There would also be penalties for companies that didn’t insure their workers.
Romney’s political aides were skittish, but there was no Tea Party back then, and the idea had been endorsed by the conservative Heritage Foundation, among others. He sold it as a question of responsibility: “No more free riding… where an individual says, ‘I’m not going to pay, even though I can afford it,’” he told reporters the day he announced the plan; a mandate is “the ultimate conservative idea.” Romney was astute enough to realize that he was shouldn’t lead negotiations, so he left the trading to the local politicians. Only when an intra-Democratic rivalry put the bill in danger did he intervene, though it’s not clear if he had any effect. After the crisis receded and business groups acceded to the fees, the bill coasted through with virtually no opposition, and Romney signed it on April 12, 2006.
Romney also had to do something about his perceived friendliness towards gays. The Massachusetts Supreme Court’s 2003 decision to legalize same-sex marriage was a political gift. As R.B. Scott explains,
Instead of championing gay rights, as he once had, he could now mount his soapbox on the Boston Common and, while protesters marched about carrying signs like GOD HATES FAGS and REPENT OR BURN, rail against same-sex marriage. In so doing he created the pleasing-to-the-religious-right illusion that he had terminated his willingness to accommodate legal same-sex domestic partnerships. Confronted about this apparent “flip-flop,” he acknowledged he now supported the concept of civil unions, but only as a “last resort” compromise.
This was a man who had once gone so far as to say the issue of gay marriage should be left to the states—which in the GOP, the party of state’s rights, is far indeed. Now he was calling for a federal ban on same-sex marriage, vilifying “activist judges” and “their like-minded friends in the communities they socialize in,” and warning America about the growing “religion of secularism.” Travelling around the country to make connections for his 2008 run, he “ridicule[d] the state he’d lived in for more than thirty years,” write Hellman and Kranish, “reporting with an air of disgust what was transpiring back home.” “Some [gay couples] are actually having children born to them,” he told a televised audience in 2005. Sometimes words aren’t enough. He tried to modify the state’s laws so that Catholic adoption agencies could ban gay couples, and ugliest of all, he killed something called the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, a program that distributed funds to schools in order to prevent suicides among gay teenagers.
Romney had to do something about reproductive issues, too. In 2005, after a meeting with Harvard stem cell researcher, Romney told the New York Times that he was now against the research, which could potentially help people like his wife, who has MS. (The Harvard scientist claimed Romney totally mischaracterized the meeting.) He also changed his mind about in-vitro fertilization, a procedure some of his children have used. Romney started talking ad nauseum about abstinence, and he vetoed a bill that would have made emergency contraception available statewide, a turnaround he could not explain sensibly: “If it only dealt with contraception, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But it also in some cases terminates a life after conception, and therefore it ceases in that case to be a contraceptive provision.” The capstone was a July 2005 op-ed in the Boston Globe, in which he declared that, once and for all, he had made up his mind about abortion. My “convictions have evolved and deepened during my time as governor,” he wrote. He was now “firmly prolife,” and during the campaign he would often say he’d “always been prolife.”
“I stood at the center of the battlefield” on social issues, he told a group of conservatives soon after he was out of office. Presidential candidates like to look tough. Romney had some experience in the security field – he had to deal with threats of terrorism and the knotty logistics of security at the Olympics – but he tried for more mileage out of the issue, threatening to scrutinize Muslims and wiretap mosques. On the economy, Romney claimed he raised no taxes as governor, and pushed for more tax cuts for the investor class, a group he had once called “fat cats.”
Perhaps sensing early that he had a reputation for estrangement from the truth, his official announcement was full of invocations of belief.
I love America and I believe in the people of America.
I believe in God and I believe that every person in this great country, and every person on this grand planet, is a child of God. We are all sisters and brothers.
I believe that the family is the foundation of America – and that we must fight to protect and strengthen it.
I believe in the sanctity of human life.
I believe that people and their elected representatives should make our laws, not unelected judges.
I believe we are overtaxed and government is overfed. Washington is spending too much money.
I believe that homeland security begins with securing our borders.
I believe the best days of this country are ahead of us, because:
I believe in America!
He also believed that he had the best shot at winning the nomination, considering his fundraising advantage and the weak field of candidates he was entering. He lost badly.
Romney was in part a victim of unlucky timing. In the primaries the economy wasn’t the all-encompassing issue it would become later in the year, when Romney’s apparent “turnaround” experience might have helped him in the general election. Romney won conservative straw polls, addressed his Mormonism in a late-2007 speech, and raked in more cash than his opponents, but – and this is the problem he still has not learned how to solve – people sensed there was something strange and disingenuous about him, something very phony and dislikable.
R.B. Scott, who concludes his book with a schizophrenic list of Romney’s good and bad attributes circa-2012, gets it right when he says that Romney might have won if he “had stopped the intellectual whoring around.” Romney lied and claimed his father had marched with Martin Luther King. When a report surfaced claiming that Romney employed illegal immigrants to tend his grounds, he blamed his son. His own adviser told the National Review that the old, pro-choice Romney was really “a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly.” The adviser was Mike Murphy, a close friend of John McCain who quit when the Arizona Senator announced his own candidacy. In assessing what Murphy’s loss meant to the Romney effort, Doug Gross, the chairman of Romney’s campaign in Iowa, made a startlingly frank comment to The Real Romney’s authors: “Mike Murphy grew up in the streets of Detroit and understands what people think and what motivates them. Mitt Romney doesn’t because he’s not an average person in any respect.” The former governor would now be forced to “rely on his own instincts” and the advice of a disorganized campaign team, which he seemed unable to control. Romney’s spokespeople and allies have a history of producing unflattering assessments of him, as though in the struggle to say something positive they simply can’t hold back their impressions. His business partners were the same way. Trying to explain his just-the-facts approach to governing, spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told The Des Moines Register that “He’s not a very notional leader. He is more interested in data, and what the data mean.”
There, in that one odious quote, is a microcosm of the Mitt Romney that surfaced three years later, ready to try again. In the interim the Republican Party, under pressure from Tea Party activists and business interests, had veered radically to the right, and Romney, still eager for the final measure of political success (his favorite noun), tacked with them. His campaign rhetoric today is dotted with ad hominems reminiscent of the red-baiting (and even race-baiting) of decades past.
Romney, though, is still a poor reader of the people. He and his team made an early decision to focus mostly on the economy, wagering that the emerging Tea Party, which appeared to be concerned only with debt and government mandates, should be taken at face value. This is a question of rhetorical emphasis, but many in the Washington pundit class took it as a sign that he was still fairly moderate, and that he might have remained so had the Tea Party, which is as fixated on culture as it is on economics, not pulled him to the right. It’s true that as the race grew more competitive Romney’s speeches grew more abrasive and social issues gained new prominence, but the shamelessness, the will to say anything no matter how extreme, was there well before he even announced his candidacy. The evidence is in print: Romney’s second book, No Apology, which he supposedly wrote himself, was published before the 2010 mid-term elections had shown how powerful the Tea Party really was.
No Apology is a loathsome, platitudinous, self-aggrandizing chunk of pap. “Those who believe in such an ascendant role for government [read: Barack Obama and the Democrats] would restructure the fundamental character of the nation,” he warns.
They simply do not believe in America as it was shaped by the Founders. They do not believe that the principles and values that made America a great nation still apply. They don’t really believe in free enterprise, free markets, and free trade. They favor government management over consumer choice. They delight when they can replace personal responsibility with government requirements.
This is the same junk, nearly verbatim, that supposedly signaled a lurch to the right during the primaries. “Perhaps,” he continues, in another line of attack he uses frequently, “that is why they have been so quick to apologize for America….No nation has done more to promote world peace and liberty… No nation has done more to combat disease and to salve humanity when it is suffering… No nation has done more to promulgate economic principles that have lifted billions of people from poverty…” However truthful they are, these are all tropes that Barack Obama uses when he speaks in public, only he deploys them less ostentatiously than Romney does. In the whole book there is not a single example of Barack Obama giving an apology to anyone, just the admission of mistakes in a few speeches he gave abroad early in his term. Funny, then, that Romney’s next line is “Yes, we have made mistakes and of course we can do even more for others,” because Obama’s “apology” speeches made the same argument, only in more detail. That does not matter to Mitt Romney: “Do not apologize for America,” he demands.
It’s true that Romney doesn’t devote as much time to social policy in the book as he does in front of the camera, but the phony charges he mouths today are implicit in words he chose two years ago, like “values” and “founding principles” and the “minorities” who are “dependent on government.” The campaign has simply forced Romney to state baldly what he was once content to imply. He made only slight modifications to the paperback edition of No Apology, which was released after the mid-terms. The first edition is subtitled “The Case for American Greatness”; the second edition, subtitled “Believe in America,” is essentially the same book with some extra red meat clumped on.
It took a lot of work and unprincipled reversals to get Mitt Romney where he is today, so it’s ironic that he had to fight so hard to win the nomination, because the Republican field in 2012 was even weaker than the one that appeared in 2008, made up as it was the buffoon like Herman Cain, the sweater-vested anachronism Rick Santorum, the monosyllabic, god-divining oaf Rick Perry, and the disgraced ex-congressmen Newt Gingrich. Political analysts had Romney pegged as the overwhelming favorite, but as the race dragged on his latest calibrations, brazen and sharp as they were, seemed like they might not be enough. For months candidates that had been languishing in single digits rose and fell in the polls, as voters searched for someone, anyone, else. Romney, who once again had a huge cash advantage, just hung on, making more calibrations, trying to avoid mistakes, until the last challenger had burnt himself out, leaving the former governor battered but alone.
And what does he claim to stand for today? The economic component we know well: lower taxes, less regulation, shrunken government; privatized public entitlements and subsidies for the rich—who by this logic are the true drivers of prosperity—in the hope that benefits will trickle down. It is the one area of policy where someone could get away with saying Romney has been consistent. It is business that he ties most frequently to his palpitations about American greatness, and that should be no surprise coming from a man whose success before politics was measured in stock dividends. Perhaps he would include religion more too, if he wasn’t so afraid of talking about it.
His “principles” on foreign policy appear more malleable. In a past incarnation he cautioned against demonizing China, but today he makes all kinds of threats about currency manipulation and accuses President Obama of appeasing Beijing, and makes the same charges about Russia. Romney is most vituperative about the Middle East. One could make the argument that he’s just pandering here as well, such as when he blamed Palestinian culture for the stunted peace process, an obvious sop to donors like Sheldon Addelson. There’s also his belligerence vis-à-vis Iran, which Obama is also appeasing, of course. It might seem safe to wager that the positions he stakes out today are just placeholders for what will be popular in the future, but a President Romney will likely have no choice but to follow through on his campaign bluster. He’s shown throughout his life that his management style is about deliberation and synthesis, but the advisors (like ex-Bushite John Bolton) he is surrounding himself with now say the same things he says, only we know they mean it. Even if he were so inclined, how could Romney face these people down, fighting learned men on their home turf with an entire party at their back? Neoconservatism is still in vogue in the GOP. It doesn’t matter if he acts with the zeal of a convert or fear of an opportunist: President Romney will do what they say.
Many voters sense this fundamental weakness, and feel that there is something off about the man. His whole life, Romney has shown no desire to wade outside the singular mini-society of achievement-oriented, devout Mormons he was born into, or the elite, professional circles of wealthy businessmen and politicians where he sought power. Small wonder then that Mitt Romney in 2012 feels like the Mitt Romney of 2008, 1994, or 1984: the same awkward attempts at demotic tomfoolery (“the trees here are just the right height,” he keeps telling audiences in Michigan), the same unconscious one-upmanship (You went to Michigan State? I have a friend on the board), the same sense of superiority and entitlement, and the same inability to connect, in person or on screen, with most of the human beings he encounters. Here is a man, one can’t help but think, who doesn’t know his own country.
But what does it matter if he believes all those awful things he said in Boca Raton? It would make sense if he does, given his rarified background and the policies he espouses. If he doesn’t, then he is a pandering coward who will be forced to try to enact those policies anyway.
Yet Mitt Romney is not a man lacking in belief. He is certain of his religion, certain of the virtue of wealth, certain of his own greatness, and certain that he deserves what he wants. The “flip-flops,” consequential as the policies may be, are window dressing. True believers are dangerous, but have the virtue of being consistent, while phonies don’t care about the truth but may be pressured to do good. So is Mitt Romney an ideologue or a weathervane? The answer is both—the worst of both.
Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.