Friday, December 2, 2011

Mitt vs. Newt: The Character Issue

Of late, the good ship Romney has been trying to weather Hurricane Newt. It hasn’t been doing very well.

When the wind is at your back and the prize is sitting there waiting for you to arrive, you can look very good. You can even look presidential.

Until recently, Romney has been acting as though, by right, the Republican presidential nomination is his. He has been acting like he’s entitled.

Unfortunately for him, acting like you are entitled grates on many people. Establishment Republicans consider Romney the inevitable candidate, but no one seems really to like him.

During the early stages of the campaign Romney’s poll numbers never rose above the low to mid 20s. Few could explain why what they found off-putting about his super-slick presentation. It’s difficult to argue that a candidate is too good. They said that he did well in the debates, but they rarely said that he was the best or that he won.

Everyone saw Romney holding his own, offering clear ripostes to every question, but he was not nearly as knowledgeable or articulate as Newt Gingrich.

Today, the good ship Romney has been floundering in the Newt storm. The InTrade odds on his nomination have dropped from 70% to 46%. Yesterday’s Rasmussen poll of likely GOP primary voters has him 20 points behind Gingrich.

In part, it’s about substance. Charles Krauthammer pointed out this morning that while Gingrich is a conservative hero whose governance adhered to conservative principles, Romney governed like a liberal.

Gingrich has had many differing, and even contradictory, opinions. Yet, his record at governance, compared to Romney’s, looks very good.

In Krauthammer’s words: “But what distinguishes Gingrich from Romney — and mitigates these heresies in the eyes of conservatives — is that he authored a historic conservative triumph: the 1994 Republican takeover of the House after 40 years of Democratic control.

“Which means that Gingrich’s apostasies are seen as deviations from his conservative core — while Romney’s flip-flops are seen as deviations from ... nothing. Romney has no signature achievement, legislation or manifesto that identifies him as a core conservative.”

And then there’s the smarts issue. Gingrich is smarter than everyone. He is a better debater than anyone.

How many conservatives are fed up with being portrayed as stupid? How many of them would thrill to a champion who could articulate their principles, not just credibly, but brilliantly? How many of them would thrill to  look forward to a presidential debate without feeling the abject fear that their candidate might make a ridiculous gaffe?

This leaves the anti-Newt crowd with the character issue.

Gingrich has been a serial marrier. He has been dogged by suggestions that he treated his first wife appallingly. And then, cheating on and then divorcing his second wife did not make him look like a man of character.

Add the fact that he earned money consulting from unsavory entities like Freddie Mac, that he has shown a notable lack of discipline and an inflated sense of his own self-importance, and you have a picture of a flawed candidate.

Next to Gingrich Romney looks like a choir boy. Of course, Romney’s problem is that next to anyone he looks like a choir boy. Most people do not much like choir boys.

While everyone admires Mitt and Ann Romney’s long happy marriage, very few Americans have had such a marriage. To many Americans it might seem like a show of aristocratic privilege.

And then there’s the politics. When you denounce someone for having been divorced, you are also denouncing a very large number of adult Americans.

Most of them do not really want their national political leaders to condemn their personal behavior.

The same logic explains why abortion rights is such a difficult issue. Most Americans oppose to abortion. Most Americans are willing to accept restrictions on abortion.

Yet, a large number of Americans have either had an abortion or are related to someone who has had one or know someone who has had one. And they do not want to hear Rick Santorum tell them that they have committed a mortal sin.

Most of them made an extremely difficult and painful moral choice. They addressed their personal dilemma with the greatest seriousness. They do not want to hear any public figure questioning or denouncing their morals.

Linking character to your sex life misses the point. For political leaders there’s a lot more to character than your sex life.

For example, character most often shows itself in how a leader deals with adversity.

The Gingrich campaign had a very rocky start. Gingrich responded by soldiering on in what appeared to be a lost cause.

America likes Rocky-esque politicians who know what to do when things are not going their way.

Newt Gingrich was the only candidate to invoke Ronald Reagan’s11th Commandment. He has refused to criticize fellow Republicans during the debates, even when he was baited by the questioners. Isn’t loyalty a sign of good character?

Mitt Romney did not criticize all of his opponents. He knew that some of them did not need any help imploding. Yet, he was brutal toward someone he took to be a serious threat, Texas governor Rick Perry.

Systematically breaking the 11th commandment does not make you a man of good character. It shows disloyalty, the will to put Self above party. It alienates fellow Republicans and dampens their enthusiasm for your candidacy.

As he has watched Newt Gingrich overtake him, Romney has gone on the attack. Gingrich has refused to return fire. Which candidate has better character?

Worse yet, Romney’s attacks have fallen flat.

He began by calling Gingrich a career politician. Since Gingrich has not been in politics for the past twelve years, it was a peculiar charge. Coming from a career candidate, it was more peculiar still.

Then, yesterday, Romney surrogate Guy Molinari came out and called Gingrich “evil.”

Why would the Romney campaign think that it has something to gain from such mindless invective?

Yesterday, Romney brought out the big gun, Gov. Chris Christie. A man whose communication skills are among the best criticized Gingrich because he had never run anything.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes for commentators to remark that Newt Gingrich ran the United States House of Representatives, which is not nothing.

The Romney communication team managed to make Chris Christie look foolish.

Besides, do you really think that Romney knows as much about the functioning of the federal government as Gingrich? What is more important as a qualification for the presidency, experience in the federal government or experience in private equity? Is it better to know how to create jobs in the private sector or to know how to create a political consensus behind a pro-growth agenda and then to implement it?

Does Romney want to explain how governing the state of Massachusetts as a RINO has provided him with the requisite experience to manage the federal bureaucracy and deal with Congress?

And then there is the matter of Romney’s unfortunate encounter with Brett Baier on Fox News on Wednesday.

As we are constantly reminded, Fox News is not unfriendly to Republicans. But Brett Baier is a reporter, not a commentator. He is not Sean Hannity.

A while back Brett Baier conducted a very tough interview with President Obama. No one should have been surprised to see that he would be just as tough on Mitt Romney.

No one, that is, except Mitt Romney, who seems to have been shocked that anyone could have the audacity to question him.

Baier’s interview revealed that Romney had a glass jaw. It showed that his aplomb was skin deep.

The debate format had allowed him to evade a serious discussion about Romneycare and the other liberal policies that he had implemented in Massachusetts. Baier asked follow-up questions and the candidate looked increasingly flustered.

Called to account by Baier, Romney showed himself to be testy, irascible, petulant, and largely hostile. After the interview he complained to Baier that he thought the interview was unfair.

His performance was not that of a man of sterling character.

John Podhoretz described Romney’s performance: “Romney’s solid 20 to 25 percent in the polls all year hasn’t grown, no matter what else has happened. That is, his lead is a flatline. What’s more, Romney knows it, and is entirely at a loss about what to do. How else can one explain his peculiar level of agitation with Fox News’ Bret Baier during a respectful and sober interview on Wednesday?

“Baier asked a series of fair and judicious questions relating to his health-care plan in Massachusetts and his shifting stance on immigration. Romney acted as though Baier were Dan Rather calling him a wimp.

“He didn’t yell; yelling is not in his wheelhouse. But he had a furious smile painted on his lips as he grew flustered and annoyed.

“Watching this very polished pol try to figure out how to talk about the fact that his health-care plan forced everyone in Massachusetts to buy an insurance policy, just as Obama’s health-care plan will force everyone in America to do so, makes it clear what a relatively easy time he has had of it so far. “

If you cannot deal with Brett Baier, how will you hold up in a debate with Barack Obama. As I have suggested before, how will Romney respond when Obama thanks him for inspiring Obamacare?

If he says it is not the same thing, Obama can easily refer to the words of Romney’s health care advisor, Jonathan Gruber, who says that the two are exactly the same.

Many Republicans have had reservations about Mitt Romney. They have felt that he was too good to be true, too perfect to be real. Their doubts were somewhat assuaged by solid debate performances, but still, they were not entirely convinced.

What if the general Republican malaise about Mitt Romney was a sign that there was something wrong, a character flaw not yet revealed, a candidate who was not quite real.

Newt Gingrich has his flaws. They are well enough known. Yet he has maintained his composure and equanimity in situations where Mitt Romney has lost his.

Good character is not the complete and total absence of sin. Someone who appears never to have sinned is generally perceived to be a fake.

For all his faults and flaws and foibles, or perhaps because of them, Newt Gingrich appears to most people to be real. It may be his saving grace.



Trailer Dweller said...

My biggest problem with Romney, besides the fact that he is an obvious RINO, is his arrogance.

Newt has also shown RINO tendencies in recent years, posing with Nancy Pelosi, for example.

The most arrogant person in the Republican pack, however, is Rick Santorum. Living in his congressional district in Western PA years ago, I and my husband had occasion to meet him at separate personal meet-and-greets. Neither of us are wealthy or influential. Both of us found him to be very arrogant and holier-than-thou. He literally looked OVER MY HEAD at someone else the entire time I was talking to him, as though I was too "little" and insignificant to bother looking at. There is also the character issue regarding lying about living in Pennsylvania and sticking the PA taxpayers for the tuition bill for his children to attend a PA cyber school while he and his family lived in Virginia. I belive that if you are dishonest in the little things, you will be dishonest in the big things. I also do not care for the way he used poor Terry Schiavo to advance his own political career. There is a reason why he was voted out of the Senate by Pennsylvanians!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Stuart.

I read your post on the character war that has been waging between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich and really appreciated your thorough analysis. You brought up a lot of points I hadn’t considered, such as Romney’s air of entitlement. To me, it’s remniscent of John Kerry, which is by no means complimentary because, as you mentioned, that attitude grates on most people. I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment about his glass jaw.
Perhaps more importantly, Romney hasn’t made any significant contributions to the conservative movement. Gingrich, however, has both won and lost battles over the past 30 years, but his voice has been consistent and enduring. Sadly, Romney’s only real move has been his ObamneyCare-role, which, needless to say, doesn’t earn him many points among conservatives.

I think you might enjoy this video. It analyzes reaction to the interview using coverage from CNN, Politico, and Comedy Central to assess how the Romney-camps media strategy is affecting public perception. It also discusses Romney’s other media mishaps and some of the damage-control measures now being recommended by pundits. I hope you will consider embedding it in your post.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.