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Mitt the Minimalist

Never in my life have I encountered a politician who does a better imitation of a mannequin than Mitt Romney, particularly when called on to address social issues. Does this presidential candidate have an “opinion,” for example, on recent attempts to run the food chain Chick-Fil-A out of large municipalities because its president, Dan Cathy, had spoken up for traditional marriage? What is Romney’s view of President Obama’s application of executive power to grant legal status to almost a million illegal residents? Does Romney have a view about such matters? If he does, he is keeping it well hidden. The only thing I hear him saying on the domestic front is that Obama has not addressed the high unemployment rate or our soaring public debt. Presumably Romney will.

All of this has been carefully scripted to make Romney electable without requiring him to show his hand, with one terrifying exception that I’ll soon get to. Admittedly there may be something to be said for this strategy. Obama has messed up the economy and despite his personal popularity, he may not be able to put together the winning coalition he had four years ago. Romney, who looks presidential and can claim corporate business experience, has offered himself as the alternative; and if the economy continues to go south, the former one-term Massachusetts governor may squeak to victory.

But even here Romney hasn’t created for himself a strong profile. Obama went after him nonstop for weeks as a grasping CEO while heading up Bain Capital, and Romney long avoided countering, even when he held the good cards. Since Obama’s brief was at best spotty, the incumbent couldn’t get as much out of it, but certainly not because of Romney’s combativeness. All I heard him say even after weeks of accusations was that Obama was slandering him.

The GOP game plan seems to be that its media brigade, led by such worthies as Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter, will save Romney the hassle of taking socially conservative positions. Sounding “conservative” may not sit well with hypothetical independents, and so the party propagandists have provided their candidate with an opportunity to dodge divisive issues. But there is no real fit between the journalistically cultivated image of Romney as a social traditionalist (outside his own family life) and his actual political record. A book that landed in my hands, despite the efforts of GOP operatives to keep it from going anywhere, is an expose by Amy L. Contrada on Governor Romney’s “deception” during the campaign for gay marriage in Massachusetts. From Contrada’s account, it is hard to pinpoint where Romney stood on this sensitive social issue. The same is true for his position on abortion, which he changed with some regularity. The conflict-avoiding Romney has been around for some time, and he’s in his element when he avoids getting pinned down on social questions.

This seems to be the routine GOP strategy in presidential races, running centrist candidates who are depicted as “conservative” but who waste capital and credibility trying to break into liberal Democratic constituencies. But Romney may be taking the smoke and mirrors game to a new level of evasiveness, by leaving it entirely to the friendly media to keep the base behind him. And given his persistent problem in overtaking the stumbling Obama, I would guess this approach is not paying off.

What may make matters worse is that Romney the mannequin turns into a reckless ideologue when he gets into foreign affairs. Having surrounded himself with neoconservative foreign policy advisors, he has taken over their characteristic views, that Obama has not been pushing “American exceptionalism,” that he has “betrayed” our Israeli allies, and that we have not been aggressive enough in bringing the rest of the world into line with our “values.” This mannequin on internal issues became an instant fire-eater when he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that “we must remain at our post and keep guard of the freedom that defines and ennobles us and our friends.” Perhaps he could defend freedom in his own country by declaring openly for Dan Cathy’s right to speak up for traditional marriage, without being persecuted by political thugs in our major cities. Or would this take Romney out of his game-plan?

Listening to Romney’s supposed gaffe in a speech in Jerusalem about why the Palestinians lag behind the Israelis, I found nothing wrong with Mitt’s statement that “if economic history teaches us anything, it is this: Culture makes a difference.” I shall readily concede that the main reason that Israelis have expanded their GDP from 66 billion to 243 billion dollars between 1993 and 2011, while more than doubling per capita income, is a combination of dumping oppressive socialist policies with a hard-working (Jewish and Palestinian) population. The Palestinians by contrast have an utterly corrupt government that exerts too much effort on the creation of fruitless violence. One may be justified in making these observations even while noticing that the present Israeli government has no real interest in granting statehood to the Palestinians and has been less than fair in negotiating with them.

But even while recognizing the self-evident truth of Romney’s larger observation, about the link between culture and economic growth, and the more specific application of the principle to the Middle East, I feel impelled to raise a question: Why doesn’t he make the same observation about the American underclass? Doesn’t the same truth apply even more strongly in our country than it does in the Middle East? The Palestinians are an occupied people; the American underclass is hardly that. And from the reports, it would seem that Romney is running for president here, not in Israel.

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