Chameleon Romney Turns Race on End

Gaffe-Prone GOP Candidate Finally Finds Way to Center

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By Leonard Fein

Published October 14, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
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The gaffable Romney has become the affable Romney, Obama misses the basket as often as he makes it. Earlier assumptions have been upended.

Does this mean that Mitt Romney deserves a second look? He and his people, in the aftermath of the debate, clearly think he does. Whether that’s because Romney seems less ominous, and whether, if so, that’s because of a stylistic shift or because of something deeper, no one can confidently say — most likely, not even Romney himself. His vertiginous shifts of recent weeks confirm earlier impressions of a Zelig-like candidate — but they also describe a man more subtly adaptable than any of us had imagined.

Now, “subtly adaptable” is a squishy phrase. If you begin, as I admittedly do, with a powerful anti-Romney disposition, “squish” doesn’t bring you very far. You need something tougher to hang on to. You need a fatal flaw. And Romney, upon parsing, does not readily offer that. He offers, instead, as he has all along, his own mysterious self. Zelig.

Where does one go from there? Nowhere, really — which is, after all, exactly where Zelig lives.

Or one goes to Romney’s earlier record, the record of an apparently remarkably unreflective man who all along wanted to “be” somebody but who could never quite define the somebody he wanted to be. And truth to tell, why bother? Handsome, rich, to the manor born. Isn’t that enough?

In the case of Romney, apparently not. Making money is fun and all that, but it’s not sufficiently substantive, lacks genuine social significance. (American Motors, the firm his father founded, was as much an expression of idealism as it was a conventional automobile manufacturer. That cannot have escaped Romney’s father-worshipping attention.) Romney père outclassed Romney fils every time.

Or perhaps class was in fact the underlying issue all along. For a Harvard MBA and a Harvard JD, though estimable achievements, are not all that much to write home about, the more so when your father is so obviously an almost super-star. I leave it to the Freudians in our midst — there are still some, I am told — to disentangle the familial implications of all this. We appear to be left with an unfathomable Romney — and that may be the missing clue. Unfathomable because no fathoms. Which is to say, the standard critique of Romney: depthless.

Where, then, to put him, how to classify him? Just another poor rich kid? Searching for the “essential Romney” is, it turns out, a hopeless endeavor; there is no “essential” Romney. Squish again, squish still. His father’s laggard son, a penchant for making money, his father a constant reminder of how far behind the quasi-idealistic Romney family standard he’d fallen and by now seemed doomed to remain.

What does one do with outsized parents when intergenerational competition is unavoidable — and when the outcome’s been foreordained? For so it surely was here. An also-ran, huffing and puffing and unable ever to catch up, the rules of a confounding — or, telling it like it is, of a cruel and unfair game.

One sidesteps the competition. What’s the point, after all? This is a game that was lost before it began. Why pretend to an idealism that does not come naturally, an idealism embodied by your worshipped father, an idealism from which you are therefore condemned from the beginning to fall short?

So: Choose a different game. Make some money, settle for wealth, which is hardly disreputable — and at which you appear to be adept. Going public — biting the political apple, as did your father — may be an appealing option, but it is not your prescribed destiny. And it is a destiny your father has effectively pre-empted.

That, roughly, is what Romney has tried. And at which he had considerable success. In those early circumstances, there was no need for Romney to define such exotic things as, say, foreign policy. Expertise in such things was neither expected nor required of him. Even now, so late in the day, no one can confidently summarize the Romney foreign policy, if there is such a thing. Hawk? That makes sense, given his emphases during the Republican debates and the campaign that has followed. Dove? That makes sense, given his painstaking search for a political center.

Or neither, if you’re Zelig.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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