Published On: Sun, Oct 23rd, 2011

The Third Romney Run for the White House

Mitt Romney has polished up his act quite a bit from 2008 when he last trotted out to the Republican debates from sea to shining sea to try to convince voters that he was good enough, he was smart enough, and doggone it: people liked him. Or not

Although he was at the top of the pack in a nationwide poll conducted January 2, 2008, the following day he placed second to Mike Huckaby in Iowa, and five days later took second in New Hampshire, a state he’d counted on winning. Despite January wins in Wyoming,  Nevada and Michigan, he finished fourth in South Carolina, and then took second again behind McCain in Florida. Despite several Romney Super Tuesday wins on February 5th, McCain’s lead was by then insurmountable and two days later the former Massachusetts governor bowed to the inevitable and ended his campaign.  A week later he endorsed McCain.

Mitt, George and Lenore Romney pictured at the senior Romney's announcement of his candidacy for Michigan governor, February, 1962

Now in 2011, like leap year and the summer Olympics, the Mitt Romney show is back with a vengeance. He has been lucky and seen potential candidates like Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour and Mike Huckaby pass on entering the presidential sweepstakes, and although others like Bachmann, Perry and now Cain have briefly rivaled or surpassed him in the polls, Romney has generally led the Republican field throughout this political season. Yet the depth of his support seems weak, never breaking much higher than the mid twenties. What is there about Mitt that makes him so hard to love?

Romney’s great weakness is his apparent inability to reach a position based on conviction and then stick with it.  As The American Spectator reports, a conservative spokesperson for a Stop Romney movement in New Hampshire says that “On issues like gun rights, gay rights, abortion, immigration, and health care, Romney has flipped more than John Kerry flopped.” The Spectator suggests that Romney’s basic problem this year is a “lack of authenticity,” just as it was in 2008. It was also the problem during the first Romney run for the White House, more than 40 years ago.

What prevented a Romney from taking the prize all those years ago was also a “lack of authenticity”, and the events surrounding that meltdown remain the greatest single gaffe in the history of presidential campaigns.

In the 1950’s, George Romney had made a name for himself as Chairman of American Motors, and by 1961 the company’s Rambler had become the third best selling car in America. First elected in 1962, he won election as governor by campaigning on revising the state’s tax structure and lashed out at both the undue influence of labor in the Democrat party, and the similar  influence of big business among Republicans. A “moderate” in the Rockefeller mode, he was a tireless proponent of civil right, turned the state’s deficit into a surplus, and by 1968 was a very popular third term governor, although he had introduced and passed the state’s first income tax.

A Gallup poll conducted in December 1966 showed Romney leading the field of potential presidential contenders with the support of 39% of Republicans and eight points ahead of Nixon, and a Harris poll showed him besting President Johnson in a potential match-up, 54% to 46%.  An exploratory committee was announced in February 1967, and a swing of western states followed soon after.

Romney’s great weakness at the time was his lack of foreign policy credentials and the absence of a clear position on the Vietnam War, the burning issue of the 1968 campaign cycle. Initially, he had taken a stand in favor of the war during a November 1965 tour in-country, but in an interview in August 1967 he stated that “When I came back from Viet Nam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.” Romney then came out as an opponent of the war, claiming that “I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia,” and urged “a sound peace in South Vietnam at an early time,” reversing his previous stance that the war was “morally right and necessary.”

Neither his campaign or his reputation ever recovered from the brainwashing remark, an alarming buzzword of the time associated with the movie The Manchurian Candidate and Communist propaganda tactics. Eight other governors had been on that same 1965 trip, and all said that nothing resembling brainwashing had occurred. Governor Hoff of Vermont characterized the remarks as “outrageous, kind of stinking” and said that Romney was “either a most naive man or he lacks judgment.” Fellow Governor Jim Rhoades of Ohio said that  “Watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football.” Newspaper editorial pages and television talk shows pounded him relentlessly, and Senator Eugene McCarthy belittled the hapless Michigander by noting that brainwashing probably hadn’t been necessary because in Romney’s case, “a light rinse would have been sufficient.” A Republican congressman noted that “If you’re running for the presidency, you are supposed to have too much on the ball to be brainwashed.” By September, Romney was 26 points behind Nixon, and by February he was 44 points back.

Presidential historian Theodore White later wrote that Romney gave “the impression of an honest and decent man simply not cut out to be President of the United States.” One would think that the lessons of those long ago events would be indelibly burned into the younger Romney’s political psyche, but apparently not. One can’t help but wonder if it is not some kind of congenital weakness, an inherited flaw. Mitt Romney too seems to be an honest and decent man, but having taken positions to please every spectrum of every rainbow, is he any more cut out to be President of the United States than his father was?

About the Author

- Russell Halley is a lifelong political voyeur. Halley started writing for weekly newspapers in the early 70's, and advanced to a successful career as a freelancer, having been published in several national magazines. Eventually, however, the call of commerce lured him away and he switched to circulation, working with many of the largest publishers around the world to increase readership. As an avocation, Russell has always followed and participated in the minutia of the political world, and migrated from a severe left wing point of view to conservatism. He was flattered when the San Jose Mercury News once described his style as “Republican Punk”, and prides himself on a certain expertise in this arena, with a perspective that he hopes sheds light on the issues of the day. Read more of Halley's clips here.