Someone Had a Good Week
Mitt Romney got off to a strong start. Don’t underestimate him.
By PEGGY NOONAN
Of course he should resign—or, better, and as a statement, the House should remove him. I speak as a conservative who wishes to conserve. If I were speaking as a Republican I’d say, “By all means keep him, let him taint all your efforts.”
But sometimes all of Washington has to put up its hand up like a traffic cop and say no. It has to say: That doesn’t go here, it’s not acceptable, it’s not among the normal human transgressions of back stairs, love affairs and the congressman on the take. This is decadence. It is pornography. We can’t let the world, and the young, know it’s “politically survivable.” Because that will hurt us, not him, and define us, not him. So: enough.
In other news, Mitt Romney had his first good week. It was startling. He stepped out from the blur. The other candidates now call him “the front runner.” By most standards he was the front runner months ago, but nobody talked about him. He didn’t live in the Republican imagination. It was “Will Mitch run?” and “You like Pawlenty?” Only seven minutes into the conversation would you get, “How will Romney do?” He was so ’08, that disastrous year.
But this week he got three big boosts. He had a reasonable announcement speech followed by a lot of national interviews. Then the Washington Post poll: Mr. Romney leads President Obama. On top of that, the two most visible Republicans the past 10 days were Sarah Palin, on her magical mystery tour, and him. They got all the coverage, and for a moment it seemed like a two-person race. Meaning a lot of Republicans got to think, “Hmm, Palin or Romney—a trip to Crazytown or the man of sober mien.” That did not hurt him.
The financial reporting period ends June 30. Mr. Romney’s focused like a laser on getting the kind of numbers that will demoralize rivals and impress the media. Money leads to money. At a Manhattan fund raiser this week, an organizer said they raised about $200,000, not bad for an hour at the end of a long day of fund raising. The roughly 70 attendees were mostly men in suits. There was no vibration of “I’d walk on burning coals for this guy.” More an air of “This is a sound choice.” On the other hand, no one was distractedly checking his BlackBerry in the back of the room, as I saw once at a Giuliani event in 2008. He was talking, they were scrolling. That’s what we call “a sign.”
Mr. Romney’s emergence means a new phase in the primary contest begins. So some quick observations on the front runner. We’ll begin with shallowness and try to work our way up.
All candidates for president are network or local. Romney is a network anchorman—sleek, put together, the right hair, a look of dignity. He’s like Brian Williams. Some candidates are local anchormen—they’re working hard, they’re pros, but they lack the patina, the national sense. Reagan, Clinton, Obama—they were network. This has to do not only with persona, but with a perceived broadness of issues and competencies. It’s not decisive, and it can change—Harry Truman was local, and became network. But it probably helps Mr. Romney that he’s network.
His seamless happiness can be grating. People like to root for the little guy, and he’s never been the little guy. His family has never in his lifetime known financial ill fortune, and his personal wealth is of the self-made kind, the most grating because it means you can’t even patronize him. He has in him that way of people who are chipper about each day in large part because each day has been very nice to them. This makes some people want to punch him in the nose. I said once he’s like an account executive on “Mad Men,” stepping from the shower and asking George the valet to bring him the blue shirt with the white collar. But this year he looks slightly older, maybe wiser, maybe a little more frayed than in 2008. Which is good. Since 2008 everyone else is more frayed, too.
In ’08, Romney’s brand was at odds with his stand. He looked and had the feel of a well-born Eastern moderate Republican. But he positioned and portrayed himself as grass-roots tea party. It was jarring, didn’t seem to fit, and contributed to the impression that he was an attractive lump of poll-tested packaging. He’s trying to get around this in two ways. First, he’s attempting to focus on economic issues, on which he has personal and professional credibility. Second, he’s trying to demonstrate authenticity by sticking to some stands unpopular with the base—global warming, health care.
The common wisdom has been that health care is the huge weak spot in his candidacy. Maybe, but maybe not. The base hates ObamaCare, as we know, and Mr. Romney devised a similar plan as governor of Massachusetts. But he can talk earnestly about it on the hustings until voters’ eyes glaze over and they plead to change the subject, which he will. And there are a lot of other subjects. If he gets through the primaries, his position on health care will become a plus: The Democrats this year will try to paint the Republican candidate as radical on health spending. It would be harder to do that to Mr. Romney.
Has enough time passed since his famous flip-flops on issues like abortion to make them old news? Four years ago it colored his candidacy. We’ll find out if people decide it’s yesterday’s story, and give him a second look.
When Mr. Romney’s father, George, ran for the GOP nomination in 1968, his religion was not an issue. Forty years later, when his son first ran, it was. Has America grown more illiberal? Maybe not. In 1968, evangelical Christians voted in Democratic primaries, because they tended to be Democrats. By 1980, all that was changing: evangelicals went Republican with Reagan and never came back.The real problem for Romney is: Does he mean it? Is he serious when he takes a stand? Has he thought it through or merely adopted it? And there is of course religion. In a silly and baiting interview with Piers Morgan on CNN, Mr. Romney swatted away an insistence that he delve into Mormonism and, by implication, defend it. It was like seeing some Brit in 1960 trying to make John F. Kennedy explain and defend Catholicism. It’s not something we do in America. Because we still have a little class.
Catholics do not tend to take a harsh view of Mormonism, nor do mainstream Protestants. It is evangelical Christians who are most inclined not to approve. In a general election this would not make much difference: Evangelicals will not vote for Obama. But in the GOP primaries it could still hurt Mr. Romney. No one knows, because no one knows what kind of year this is. Maybe evangelicals will have seen enough of him not to mind; maybe the Obama presidency convinced them it’s not so important.
My own read is standard Catholic. Mormons have been, on balance, a deeply constructive force in American life, and it is absurd and ignorant not to support a political figure only because you do not prefer or identify with the theology of his church.
Really, grow up. Enough.