On the occasion of next week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, which opens Monday and concludes Thursday, this week the New York Times ran a behind-the-scenes feature detailing the convention planners’ foremost challenge: “Selling” Mitt Romney to the public, in the hopes of “paint[ing] a full and revealing portrait of who Mitt Romney is.”
As the Times duly notes, this will prove a rather delicate task, as Romney has made something of a second career of attempting, like so many poor souls before him, to be all things to all men. Much has been written, for the better part of the half-decade that Romney’s been running for president, about Romney’s tendency to change his public views about a given subject at a moment’s notice, implying that he has no core and is a pure opportunist.
To then make him appear “genuine,” as it were, is not so much a herculean task, but an impossible one.
Taking Romney’s political shape-shifting as a whole—that is, as a man who generally portrayed himself as a so-called “moderate” while governor of Massachusetts and now generally portrays himself as “severely conservative”—one of four things has to be true. One, he really was a moderate who experienced a series of conservative epiphanies in a very short time; two, he is a moderate pretending to be conservative; three, he is a conservative who formerly pretended to be moderate; or four, he has no political convictions of any kind.
Of course, I have just addressed two separate and distinct matters: First, whether Romney is a genuine person; second, whether Romney appears to be a genuine person. The convention is responsible for the latter; only Romney himself can do anything about the former. Conceivably—since 21st century politics is so very much dependent on perception rather than reality—if a candidate succeeds in appearing authentic, he therefore is authentic.
It’s the essence of cynicism: Purposefully deceiving voters based on the wager that they’re not informed or savvy enough to realize it.
A textbook example: Barack Obama on same-sex marriage. You will recall how the president announced his support for marriage equality this past May, following nearly an entire term of “evolving” on the issue. Intriguingly, as a state senate candidate in 1996, Obama wrote in a questionnaire, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages,” before publicly opposing them during his runs for the U.S. Senate and the White House.
The president would have us believe that his history with the subject is on the level—that he is, effectively, the only person in America to voice for gay marriage before voicing against it (before voicing for it again)—and how dare anyone infer political calculation along the way!
Yet Obama more or less got away with this, largely because so many supporters acted as co-conspirators at every juncture, figuring that a leader who publicly opposed (but privately supported) marriage rights was preferable to one who opposed them both publicly and privately—the good old “lesser evil” theory at work. The president’s flagrant cynicism was a big, fat open secret to friend and foe alike.
That’s how Romney now seems to me. All but the lowest of the “low-information voters” (the current shorthand for the dumb and the apathetic) seem to have gotten the memo that the former governor plays fast and loose with his political convictions and that, if elected, his policies as president are therefore very difficult to anticipate.
So why deny it? Isn’t this always the case, anyway? Has a president ever carried out policy the way he vowed to do as a candidate? Like a major league slugger, a president who succeeds one-third of the time (as Obama currently has) can reasonably be considered an effective commander-in-chief.
The reason for this, as we so often forget, is that the power of the presidency is far more limited than the campaign season would suggest. As President Obama quickly learned, even the most disorganized and unpopular Congress in the modern era can turn any major initiative into a crumbling bridge to nowhere.
Faced with this particular reality, it would be my fondest wish—my Aaron Sorkin/Will McAvoy fantasy—for Mitt Romney to come clean and present himself exactly as he is: A man who wants to be president badly enough that he will bend his views to suit the circumstances of the time and the people whom he will serve. To embrace his perceived weakness and argue—as he very plausibly could—that it is actually a strength and a necessity. To have the courage of his convictions to say that he does not have the courage of his convictions.
Now there’s an image for you.