One of my regrets in life is losing the chance to debate Mitt Romney and whip his ass.
It was the fall of 2002. Mitt had thundered into Massachusetts with enough money to grab the Republican nomination for governor. Meanwhile, I was doing my best to secure the Democratic nomination. One week before the Democratic primary I was tied in the polls with the state treasurer, according to the Boston Herald, well ahead of four other candidates. But my campaign ran out of cash. Despite pleas from my campaign manager, I didn’t want to put a second mortgage on the family home. The rest is history: The state treasurer got the nomination, I never got to debate Mitt, and Mitt won the election.
With Trump, Gingrich, Bachmann, and possibly Palin now in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, “GOP” is starting to mean Goofy, Outrageous, and Peculiar. Mitt would pose the most serious challenge to a second Obama term.
I say this not because Mitt’s mind is the sharpest of the likely contenders (Gingrich is far more nimble intellectually). Nor because his record of public service is particularly impressive (Tim Pawlenty took his governorship seriously while Mitt as governor seemed more intent on burnishing his Republican credentials outside Massachusetts). Nor because Mitt is the most experienced at running a business (Donald Trump has managed a giant company while Mitt made his money buying and selling companies.) Nor, finally, because he’s especially charismatic or entertaining (Sarah Palin can work up audiences and Mike Huckabee is genuinely funny and folksy, while Mitt delivers a speech so laboriously he seems to be driving a large truck).
Mitt Romney’s great strength is he looks, sounds, and acts presidential.
Policy wonks like me want to believe the public pays most attention to candidates’ platforms and policy positions. Again and again we’re proven wrong. Unless a candidate is way out of the mainstream (Barry Goldwater and George McGovern come to mind), the public tends to vote for the person who makes them feel safest at a visceral level, who reassures them he’ll take best care of the country – not because of what he says but because of how he says it.
In this regard, looks matter. Taller candidates almost always win over shorter ones (meaning even if I’d whipped him in a debate, Romney would probably still have won the governorship). Good-looking ones with great smiles garner more votes than those who scowl or perspire (Kennedy versus Nixon), thin ones are elected over fat ones (William Howard Taft to the contrary notwithstanding), and the bald need not apply (would Eisenhower have made it if Stevenson had been blessed with a thick shock?).
Voices also matter. Deeper registers signal gravitas; higher and more nasal emanations don’t command nearly as much respect (think of Reagan versus Carter, or Obama versus McCain).
And behavior matters. Voters prefer candidates who appear even-tempered and comfortable with themselves (this was Obama’s strongest advantage over John McCain in 2008). They also favor the candidate who projects the most confidence and optimism (think FDR, Reagan, and Bill Clinton).
Romney has it all. Plus a strong jaw, gleaming white teeth, and perfect posture. No other Republican hopeful comes close.
What does Mitt stand for? It’s a mystery — other than a smaller government is good and the Obama administration is bad. Of all the Republican hopefuls, Romney has most assiduously avoided taking positions. He’s written two books but I challenge anyone to find a clear policy in either. Both books are so hedged, conditioned, boring and bland that once you put them down you can’t pick them up.
Mitt is reputed to say whatever an audience wants to hear, but that’s not quite right. In reality he says nothing, but does it in such way audiences believe they’ve heard what they want to hear. He is the chameleon candidate. To call Mitt Romney an empty suit is an insult to suits.
Yet Romney is gaining ground over Obama. According to the most recent Marist poll, in a hypothetical presidential matchup Obama now holds a one percent point lead over Romney, 46 to 45. In January, Obama led Romney by 13 points.
Why is Mitt doing so well? Partly because Obama’s positions are by now well known, while voters can project anything they want on to Mitt. It’s also because much of the public continues to worry about the economy, jobs, and the price of gas at the pump, and they inevitably blame the President.
But I suspect something else is at work here, too. To many voters, President Obama sounds and acts presidential but he doesn’t look it. Mitt Romney is the perfect candidate for people uncomfortable that their president is black. Mitt is their great white hope.
Robert Reich served as the 22nd United States Secretary of labor under President William Jefferson Clinton from 1992 to 1997. He shares many of his thoughts and columns at Robert Reich.org, where this post first appeared.