Here's Mitt Romney in a nutshell: During a town-hall event at a chapel in Merrimack, New Hampshire, some stammering yahoo in the back row gets up and asks the slick Mormon venture capitalist just exactly what he means when he says he plans to "change the face of the Middle East."
"I want to know where you stand on that," the yutz pleads. "Your answer will determine whether I want to vote for you."
Romney smiles, humbly accepting the challenge. When it comes to the satanic art of presidential campaigning, this lean, heavily moussed political athlete is a stone prodigy, a natural who glides through campaign events with the aid of some dark supernatural power — a tie-clad, sweat-resistant cross of Roy Hobbs and Rosemary's Baby. As he ponders the question about the Middle East, you can almost see the Terminator display screen behind his eyes, calibrating to the hundredth of a centimeter the exact distance to his questioner and quickly selecting from a prefab list of responses.
"Well," Romney says sunnily. "What I'd like to see is, I'd like to see a Palestinian state at peace, where Israel and Palestine are at peace."
Nods of approval in the front row. Peace between Israel and Palestine, what a great idea! How about a cure for cancer, water for the world's deserts, more girls in bars who will say "yes"?
"And what I'd like to see," continues Romney, pointing a finger for emphasis — no other GOP candidate makes more diligent use of the basic tenets of public speaking, from the constant use of animated hand gestures for rhetorical emphasis to the rigid maintenance of direct eye contact with his questioners — "what I'd like to see is Muslims carry the key role in rejecting violent jihadism."
More murmurs of assent. Hell, that sounds great too — let's get Muslims to reject jihadism! That way, we don't have to do it for them! Why haven't the other candidates thought of that?
One is tempted to laugh at this stuff, but in fact there's nothing funny about any of it. For this is the great strength of Mitt Romney: When the former governor of Massachusetts and current Republican front-runner in Iowa is on his game, voters walk out of his campaign events thinking he's the candidate of blue sky and sunshine, of cute newborn puppies, of the crack of the bat in spring training, of the first bite of a warm oatmeal cookie. The most common thing you hear from voters after a Romney event is how impressed they are by his demeanor and delivery, his obvious vitality, by the fact that he looks like he could do this twenty-four hours a day and twice on Sunday, taking off only twenty-six minutes once a week to make monogamous, missionary-position love to his baby-factory wife. And that's precisely the way Romney wants it: He wants voters focused on him the man , this unblemished, in-control Example for All who, unlike his Republican rivals, is in no danger of collapsing onstage, or getting caught on camera with his cock in some bruisecovered stripper or Jack Russell terrier.
"I'll set an example," he tells his New Hampshire audience. "I believe in people going to church, I believe in people being faithful to one's spouse, I believe in kids and I believe in families."
Once you've heard this kind of drivel enough times, it's not hard to see how this flag-waving conservative actually won the governorship in Ted Kennedy's home state, or propelled his Mormon magic-underwear-wearing self to nearfront- runner status in a party that is overwhelmingly, intolerantly Christian. Mitt Romney is the A-Rod of campaigning; he makes it look easy. But like A-Rod, Romney has that nagging problem of how to finish. What he is finding is that after seven years of George Bush , there may not be any winning territory left to steal on the GOP side. In fact, the cupboard is so bare for Republicans these days that when Romney and Rudy Giuliani held a mudslinging contest at the October 9th debate, they picked a fight over the line-item veto — an issue about as relevant in the age of Iraq as women's suffrage, or free silver. In that sense, watching this campaign genius grope around in the wreckage of modern Republicanism for a viable electoral platform is not only highly entertaining — it says a lot about how completely the Karl Roves and the Dick Cheneys of the world have intellectually bankrupted a party that just ten years ago looked poised to become America's permanent majority.
Romney's shtick — and it's not an unobvious tactic, given what meager scraps of fertile political territory are left for Republicans to claim for themselves — is to pitch himself as the "private sector" candidate, the one guy on either side of the field who can sell himself as a captain- of-industry type, familiar with the ins and outs of the global economy.
You can learn a lot about a candidate by what his leadoff line is, and in Romney's case, when he's not in New Hampshire (where he unfailingly kicks off every event with a Red Sox reference; I actually clocked him at one stop mentioning the Sawx as early as three seconds after grabbing the microphone) he plunges right into his I-know-the-way-because- I've-made-shitloads-of-money act.
"The challenges we face are beyond the scope of just a politician," he says. "It's going to take somebody who's been able to live in the private sector, who learns how the economy actually works, who knows how to get the job done. It's going to take someone like that to get America on track again."
And from there he's off. If there's any theme to Romney's stump speech, it's his relentless emphasis on his private-sector background. He relies heavily on the compare 'n' contrast technique, fragging Democrats like Hillary Clinton for their supposed Trotskyite affection for big government ("I wonder why they always turn to government as the answer. I think it's because they spend their life in government. I've spent my life in the private sector"). He pimps his global-economy credentials ("I've done business in some twenty different countries"). And most hilariously, he name-drops like a Hollywood press agent, giving the impression that he spends all his spare time smoking cigars at the Yale Club with Fortune 500 CEOs. At a stop in Manchester, New Hampshire, Romney addresses a crowd of wide-eyed corporate lawyers at a special "Economic Ask Mitt Anything" event (as opposed to an ordinary "Ask Mitt Anything" event; the only difference between an "Economic Ask Mitt" and a regular "Ask Mitt," as far as I can tell, is that the audience at the former is richer). Romney explains how he settled upon his health-care strategy.
"What happened is pretty interesting," he says, laughing. "The founder of Staples came to my office after I was elected governor, and he said, 'Mitt, if you really want to help people, you'll find a way to get everybody health insurance.'"
Only in America do audiences not burst out laughing when a guy worth $250 million gets up onstage and says he and his CEO buddies spend their spare time racking their brains to find ways to help people. Indeed, when you talk to people at Romney's events, they love to parrot what he has just told them about his fabled business background. "He strongly supports the private sector to solve our problems," gushes Terry Dussault of Merrimack. "That's very important to me."
The perception of Romney as a successful businessman who has made a vast fortune is seductive enough that it works for most audiences on the Republican campaign trail, even if they don't really understand how exactly he made all that money. But if Romney makes it through the nomination process to face the Democrats, they will be sure to turn his career into a referendum on modern business practices. In many ways, Romney is a symbol of modern capitalism, a turbopowered Wall Street dice-roller who made his fortune by coldbloodedly gambling on the successes and failures of the companies he bought and sold from afar. Romney's "business" wasn't turning labor into product, it was turning money into money — and more than a few of his investments were of the scorchedearth variety, buying up companies and cashing out within three to five years, often after closing factories or laying off workers to beef up the bottom line.
A Harvard-educated prodigy executive, Romney at a very young age was put in charge of a venture-capital outfit called Bain Capital. Reports suggest that many of the traits that mark Romney's campaign style — his meticulously prepared presentation, his apparent tirelessness, his iron discipline in not straying into controversial or unpredictable policy positions — were also in evidence in his managerial style at Bain, where he is said to have pored over each and every expenditure and bloodlessly weeded out risky investment schemes in an age (the early Eighties) when many investment companies were spending money like drunken sailors. At Bain, each partner had veto power over every deal, and as a result, investing any money at all was an enormously time- consuming process. One former partner, Bob White, says he got so tired of Romney shooting down deals in strategy meetings that he wanted to "punch him in the nose." But the devil's-advocate approach paid off — most notably when Bain's $650,000 investment in a single Staples store turned into an $18 billion chain.
Despite this success, however, Romney moved Bain away from boom-bust venture-capital investments and into the darker world of leveraged buyouts, where the firm borrowed money to make deals. A typical example of Bain's approach was its experience with another office-supply company called Ampad, which it acquired in 1992. In 1993, the company had $11 million in debt; by 1999, that number had grown to nearly $400 million, and the firm eventually defailure, Bain made a fortune, raking in more than $100 million while driving the company into the ground and destroying hundreds of jobs in places like New York (where 185 people were thrown out of work in a plant closing near Buffalo) and Indiana (where the firm fired 200 workers from a paper factory).
Even more telling was Romney's interest in a medical-testing firm called Damon Corp., which Bain bought in 1989. The company was eventually fined a record $119 million for defrauding the federal government out of $25 million, but Bain still tripled its investment on the Damon deal. And Romney, who was sitting on the Damon board at the time of the fraud (his claim that he was the one who called for an internal investigation has never been substantiated), made a personal profit of $473,000 on the deal. In a delicious detail that says a lot about the nature of Romney's morality, the investor had no problem making piles of cash off companies that executed mass layoffs or defrauded the government, but he balked when asked to invest in a Bain deal to acquire a video distribution company called Artisan Entertainment. "I didn't want to profit from a studio that made R-rated movies," he huffed.
All of which makes it very dicey when Romney talks about how he wants to help U the Voter save money by instituting a "new tax rate" on your savings — "zero." At stop after stop, I hear crowds cheer at that line; few, apparently, catch Romney mentioning that this new low, low tax rate would also apply to capital gains, which would make quite a killing for the Bain Capitals of the world. The crowds also respond when Romney promises to run the government like a business — although there is some creeping doubt on the issue, even among the hardest of hardcore Republican crowds. "I don't know," says an elderly man in Merrimack, reflecting the legacy of the Bush years. "These rich guys always promise not to spend. I don't trust 'em anymore."
That nagging credibility problem might explain why Romney, despite massively outspending his Republican rivals — $53 million so far, including more than $17 million of his own money — is currently slipping in the polls. In New Hampshire, where for months he has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on localtelevision advertising, Romney has dropped into a virtual tie with fangbaring rival Giuliani (who has lately been assailing him with wild charges about his "Taxachusetts hypocrisy"). And in Iowa, where Romney leads the GOP field, he has dropped four points in the polls in recent months. Worse still, his fund-raising numbers have steadily dropped from quarter to quarter; his haul went from $21 million in the first quarter of this year to $14 million in the second, less than half the amount raised by Barack Obama.
The real question is this: If you're gunning for the GOP nomination, where do you run these days? Do you strap on your medals, limp into VFW halls and do a Band of Brothers act, a la John Mc- Cain? Do you stand up before suburban crowds, tell horror tales of hairy Muslims lurking near reservoirs and promise to bomb them all back to the Stone Age, like Rudy Giuliani? Do you wear your WWJD cap and quote the Bible, like Mike Huckabee, or freak out about rapehungry Mexicans, like Tom Tancredo? Or do you do what Romney does: Look smooth, keep your nose clean and tour the country talking about business being the answer to all the world's ills?
It's a conundrum, and the problem isn't just that the current batch of ruling Republicans have horrified the whole world through their insane invasion of Iraq, run up record deficits despite campaigning on a platform of fiscal restraint, punted the ethics issue deep into Democrat territory with a parade of staggering corruption indictments and turned their pompous emphasis on personal morality into a late-night punch line through their hilarious high-profile pursuits of littleboy pages and anonymous bathroom sex. It's also that America is getting older, and yesterday's liberalism is slowly but surely turning into a new generation's conservatism. So when some starchedup, smooth-talking, TV-ready creature like Mitt Romney, who made his fortune laying off factory workers, walks onto college campuses and starts bashing cohabitation and having children out of wedlock, he loses young people who are tired of watching our leaders fuck things up on a grand scale and then turn around and blame our problems on stoned teenagers. Back when the Gingrich revolution was hot, even college kids bought into the reactionary rhetoric. But now that Bush and Cheney have blown that revolution to itty-bitty pieces, the Republican morality line sells like warmedover horseshit; on college campuses, Romney comes off like a parent trying to maintain his moral authority after a messy divorce in which the kids got to watch Daddy shacking up with his secretary and Mommy hauling out the lawyers to repossess Dad's fridge.
"Like, a friend of mine is pregnant right now, and I completely support her even though she may or may not be married," says Caitlyn Keating, a student who isn't impressed with Romney's moralizing at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.
For a Republican, Mitt Romney did everything right. He pinched his pennies, fired everyone in sight, worshipped God loudly and often, and kept his cock in his pants for the whole of his enormously profitable adult life, before finally jumping into politics in late middle age with a giant war chest in tow. But by the time he made it to the campaign trail, a succession of Republicans before him had already spent an entire generation crying wolf to increasingly skeptical audiences. Romney may be a great salesman, but he's running for the nomination of a party that has nothing left to sell.