Romney's Loss: The Wrong Man at the Right Time
A week has passed, providing distance from the elections. That time allows for some additional thinking.
By the time Election Day had come, I was very enthusiastic about voting for Romney, not merely about voting against Obama. I had stopped recalling how unenthusiastic about Romney we conservatives had been until the October 3 first debate.
How desperate we had been a year ago to find someone, anyone but Romney. We contemplated Tim Pawlenty. After he went on Sunday talk shows calling the president's "Affordable Care Act" by a clever name -- "ObamneyCare" -- we awaited the debate that would pit Pawlenty head-on against Romney. The debate came days later. Invited to tell Romney to his face what he had told Chris Wallace, Pawlenty backed down. Exit Pawlenty.
Then we got excited about Michele Bachmann. Congressional voice of the Tea Party, she won the Iowa Straw Poll. Yet, under the spotlight as front-runner, she demonstrably proved not yet ready for presidential prime time. Many of us adore her and celebrate her recent re-election, but as Ann Coulter has observed, congressional representatives should win a statewide election before seeking the presidency. Demonstrate that you can appeal to a base broader than your more homogeneous district.
So we turned to Herman Cain. He was an exciting guy. 9-9-9. Looking back, though, the Cain Mutiny against the tried-and-proven elected representatives said more about the weakness of the 2012 GOP field than it did about Cain. Looking back -- honestly, can success as the CEO of Godfather Pizza be adequate training to serve as the leader of the free world? Honestly? Would we better off today with a new federal Value-Added Tax that would begin at 9 percent and that the Democrats could raise every year, as they do other taxes? When the parade of accusing ladies next came -- a promenade that stopped instantly when Cain withdrew -- many saw the sordid finger of David Axelrod, but we knew we had to look elsewhere.
So we turned to Rick Perry. Rick Perry may well have been the best Republican candidate for this cycle. Entering as a popular sitting governor with a wonderful life story about rising from humble roots and fighting for our country, he began as a Democrat and over time evolved toward Republican conservatism. That worked for Reagan. For Republicans today obsessed with attracting Latino voters, Perry emerges as having been most effective. When he was challenged at the debates for extending advantageous tuition to the children of undocumented aliens in his state, he never backed down. He could have packaged his explanations later in powerful commercials on Spanish-language TV stations. He stood for simplifying taxes down to a postcard. He raised intriguing ideas about reducing congressional and senatorial work to part-time. However, Perry also picked some nasty, petty fights with Romney that did not serve him well, and then came the "Oops!" moment for which so many of our hearts shared in his pathos, because brain-freeze moments happen to everyone. Only not usually in front of tens of millions.
So we got excited over Newt. We loved how Newt served it up to Fox's Juan Williams over food stamps. How he blasted CNN's John King, another moderator, for trying to turn a debate over weighty issues into a sordid soap opera, prompted by a jilted ex-wife's score-settling interview with Nightline. For a moment, we felt we now had found a matured, seasoned Newt, synergizing the 1994 "Contract with America" -- still with all the cunning and all the fight -- shorn of the over-exuberance. Still the best debater in the room and the smartest guy in politics.
Initially, he was torpedoed, even was cheated. Romney's backers brutally character-assassinated Gingrich through vicious super-PAC ads. Rather than attack Newt on ideas, Romney's people savaged Newt on personal matters. There were half-truths, innuendoes. The ads worked famously, and a South Carolina Newt victory soon became a distant memory by the time of Florida. Facing disaster, shades of the old Newt emerged. Having held his punches, he started pummeling back, punch for savage punch, blow for vicious blow. Romney, he of the pure and elegant character, would learn that what comes around goes around, and what goes around comes around.
Gingrich's super-PAC went after Bain Capital, ran ads showing how Romney had displaced working families from job and income. For the first time, millions of independents were shown Romney as Michael Douglas/Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, a heartless capitalist buying productive companies and shredding them heartlessly to profit by trading them into small, useless bits. The poison took hold with many, even before Obama's team upped the dosage. And then the other foible of the Old Newt started emerging: the intellectually undisciplined genius with just too many ideas, too many moving parts. The permanent colony on the moon was the moment when the campaign finally cratered. We had to find someone else.
That left Santorum. Once again, we had a fabulous candidate on paper whom we tried so hard to love. Because he told a wonderful rags-to-middle-class story with sincerity, we learned to overlook that he had been electorally massacred in Pennsylvania. He would appeal to blue-collar, working-class Catholic independents. With his beautiful family alongside him, we shared in the heart-tugging health drama unfolding with one of his children. Without the big money or big-name backing, shunted off to the far left side on each debate platform, he nevertheless had invested the hard work to pull off a miracle in Iowa. He intrigued.
And then he flaked, too. It became religion and religion and religion. As an Orthodox rabbi, I love hearing the inclusion of respect for and obedience to G-d and love of country. A pro-life message, if presented sensitively and wisely, should defeat the Sandra Fluke/Lena Dunham sexual messages handily. Yet Ronald Reagan was pro-life, but he knew where to draw the line in public discussion. Santorum lacked that judgment. And when he unexpectedly told us that he had "wanted to throw up" years earlier when he had heard the late, assassinated John Kennedy speak about separation of church and state -- well, as they say, TMI: too much information.
With Gary Johnson having provided a grand total of one good line about his neighbor's dog poop being more shovel-ready than Obama's "stimulus" waste, with Ron Paul non-electable and indeed never having won statewide office, and with Jon Huntsman there to balance the other side of the room, that left us with Mitt Romney.
We were not excited with Mitt. We were concerned about the similarities between RomneyCare and ObamaCare. Although we understood his federalism argument -- that his plan was right for Massachusetts but ought not be imposed by a federal government on other unwilling states -- he still would be fatally compromised debating ObamaCare's fundamental flaws. We were concerned about that Gekko image. We worried that, having won one term as Massachusetts governor, he had avoided chancing a re-election try. We knew he could not excite the base because we were the base, and we had come to him only after trying Pawlenty, Bachmann, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, and Santorum. Soon, we heard about an "Etch-a-Sketch" candidacy being planned.
Still, we perked up when Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, and we excitedly anticipated the Republican Convention -- but, again, we were flattened. There indeed were fabulous moments during that Convention: Susana Martinez, Marco Rubio. Paul Ryan's metaphor of the college grad lying in his childhood bedroom, looking at the faded Obama poster on the ceiling, and wondering whether life was passing him by. And the darned best part of that whole Convention -- yes, Clint and the Empty Chair. But somehow the key pieces missed by a country mile. Chris Christie delivered the lamest keynote speech in the history of political conventions, auguring Romney's own vanilla acceptance that lacked even specks of real vanilla bean.
We knew it. We knew this was not what we had awaited and hoped for these past forty-two months. We all kept wishing if only. "If only Mitch Daniels..." But Mitch Daniels had almost lost forever the wife he loves. They had married in 1978 and divorced in 1993, then remarried in 1997. In a world where mainstream media savagely destroy Republicans, that marriage would have been imperiled. He was never going to risk that. Then it was "If only Chris Christie..." Well, thankfully that passed. "If only Rob Portman..." We would have ended up losing a preciously secure U.S. Senate seat.
Often, the simplest explanation is best. Romney never excited the base. In time, with no other choice left, we came to value him, forgetting our resistance. But if it had taken us a year to buy in, can we be surprised, looking back, that others did not? Sadly, Mitt Romney was the wrong man at the right time.
Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.