Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tell ’Em What They Wanna Hear, Right?

Coming as it does from widely read Associated Press political reporter Ron Fournier, this is a pretty damning analysis of Mitt Romney’s decisive win in Tuesday’s Michigan Republican presidential primary:
Mitt Romney’s victory in Michigan was a defeat for authenticity in politics.

The former Massachusetts governor pandered to voters, distorted his opponents’ record and continued to show why he's the most malleable--and least credible--major presidential candidate.

And it worked.
Fornier goes on to lament that war candidate John McCain came in a distant second place (39 percent for Romney, 30 percent for McCain) after trying to reach voters with his dour but accurate assessment that traditional auto industry jobs aren’t coming back to depressed Michigan. (McCain added during his campaign appearances--and in an obvious slap at his Massachusetts rival--that anyone who says they “are coming back is either naïve or is not talking straight with the people of Michigan and America.”) Fornier says this shows how much of a panderer Romney is, as if this was some sort of amazing revelation. It shouldn’t have been, not at this stage. Presidential races bring out the pandering reflex in practiced candidates, and the GOP field this year is more ready to suck up than usual, knowing that George W. Bush has crapped all over their chances of succeeding him in the Oval Office, and that they need to do or say something to energize a Republican base unhappy with every one of the candidates.

Romney is benefiting from being better than his competitors at tuning his message for individual audiences, as Salon’s Mike Madden points out today:
Listening to Romney as he sought his first victory in a contested primary, you almost got the idea that the winner would go on to be president of Michigan. “We’re going to have a leadership in Washington that gets the job done for this great state,” Romney promised voters in Grand Rapids Tuesday morning, at his final campaign event. “I’m going to fight to help Michigan, and I will not rest until it’s come back.” ...

Touring the Detroit auto show Monday afternoon, Romney walked right past a blood-red Lexus convertible on his way to check out another car he had his eye on. “Let's see,” he told his oldest son, Tagg. “I want to take a look at this Town & Country if I can.” Not many people would pass up a roadster for a minivan, especially not a man who owns one of the first new “retro” Mustangs to roll off the Ford assembly line in 2004. Romney was so relentlessly focused on his Michigan message that his need to pander robbed him of his taste. He paid rapt attention as Chrysler executives showed him a hideous lime-green Jeep dune buggy made of plastic (“good for surfing,” one suit told him).

That ability to reinvent himself as a born-again Michigander in the week since New Hampshire (where Romney was the friendly technocrat next door) undoubtedly helped carry him to victory. But it also left advisors to his rivals fuming about the way he won. McCain’s campaign, stung by the late Romney surge, sent reporters an e-mail quoting an AP story that called the night “a defeat for authenticity in politics.” A strategist for one opponent said Romney’s easy shifts from backing moderate policies in Massachusetts to being a would-be conservative purist now led to “enormous ill will” between Romney and nearly every other candidate in the race.
Romney doesn’t care. He wants to be the last man standing in a ring full of featherweights, and his combination of deep pockets and sunny personality just might make him the GOP nominee. Even if Christianists think he’s the devil. And even though he’d be seriously outclassed in any substantive debate with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards about health care, the economy, unemployment, or the ever-increasing death toll in Bush’s Iraq war. Romney succeeds by being a pretty face who can switch his opinions on a dime. With McCain endorsing an interminable war in the Middle East, Mike Huckabee wanting to amend the U.S. Constitution “so it’s in God’s standards” (who unchained this knucklehead from his pulpit, anyway?), Fred Thompson proving that he shouldn’t have left Law & Order after all, and former 9/11 mayor Rudy Giuliani falling even behind Ron Paul in the voting so far, it’s very possible that Romney will be the GOP candidate come November.

All he has to do is pander harder.

You can do that, can’t you Mitt? Sure ya can.

READ MORE:Mitt’s Not Over,” by John Dickerson (Slate); “The 2008 Presidential Mash-up,” by Walter Shapiro (Salon); “Is Rudy a Mad Genius After All?” by John Heilemann (New York); “The Republican Word of the Day Is ‘Disarray,’” by Steve Benen (The Carpetbagger Report); “Republicans Ponder Deadlocked Convention,” by Charles Babington (AP).

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