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Romney’s Adversary Is Lack of Enthusiasm

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
March 17, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo

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First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo

In the last two weeks, Republicans in sixteen states voted to select delegates for the party's national convention in August, where they will anoint their presidential contender. The party will then try to unify around that candidate's attempt to deny President Obama a second term in office. The traditional establishment of the GOP believes Mitt Romney is best posed to lead the party back to the White House. But his losses this week in the socially conservative south to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich raise the possibility that even if Romney becomes the Republican to beat Obama, the voters he needs in the south and beyond could just stay home on election day (unlike Brazil, voting in the United States is entirely voluntary).

Even Romney's natural supporters strain to persuade themselves that he's their man. I asked a Republican corporate executive in his early forties, someone who grew up in Romney's home state of Michigan (where Romney's father was governor), how he is feeling about the campaign. His answer provides the campaign with a workable and honest set of talking points, but I was struck by his overall lack of enthusiasm. "He has never inspired me with a speech. He's a bit too conservative for me on many social issues. I don't think he or the country really wants to prioritize those issues for the foreseeable future. I could make the case that he may be more qualified to be president: extremely bright with openness to new ideas; well educated; wildly successful in American business; successful governor; measured in his tone and approach; and he cuts a convincing figure to lead and be commander in chief." Of deepest concern, he confessed, "I don't expect him to be the visionary leader that Ronald Reagan was."

And therein lies the problem. Romney isn't Reagan. In today's United States I doubt even Reagan could win the nomination. The Republican Party is now so divided over cultural and social issues, and so rigidly orthodox in its anti-government economic vision, that Governor Romney simply cannot believably represent the diversity of red state primary voters.

Even Romney's own record makes his antipathy toward Obama unpersuasive. Romney was the governor of Massachusetts, the land of JFK and Teddy Kennedy, from 2002 to 2006. He was a political liberal at the time, mandating universal health insurance coverage for all residents of his state, supporting the right to contraception for women, and, though inconsistent, largely backing the right for gay men and lesbians to enter into civil unions—the political and often legal step just shy of "marriage equality," or gay marriage. If he becomes the GOP nominee, his foreign policy views will mainly align with those of Obama's, even if his tone and rhetoric differentiate him during the campaign.

Romney now has nearly twice as many delegates as Santorum and almost four times as many as Gingrich. He remains the likely Republican challenger to Obama in November. A successful businessman, he earned upwards of $20 million dollars in investment income alone in 2011. He is anti-union and appears to be dismissive of the material deprivations of the poor and increasingly impoverished middle class. These qualities might add to his appeal among some independents and more conventional Republican voters.

But Romney's personal choices also make him hard to like, even for Republicans. A Mormon, he is a member, leader, and major financial contributor of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, an institution that the Catholic Church, for example, views as a cult. His personal iciness makes him appear to have trouble connecting to people, and perhaps also to animals: he once tied his family's dog to the roof of his car for a long distance drive north to Canada for vacation. The cover of this week's New Yorker, a magazine of politics and culture, depicts a cartoon image of a grinning Romney driving a car with Rick Santorum strapped on the roof, nose in the air, like a dog. Romney may well win the GOP nomination, but his weakness among social conservatives—who make up well over 30 percent of his party's political base—suggests drawing a different image: Romney in Santorum's doghouse.

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