The candidate from central casting

Dateline 29 August 2007

He’s been called the candidate from central casting. Time’s Joe Klein called him “the most perfect iteration I've seen of the television-era candidate” – and Klein wrote a fictionalized version of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.

It is certainly true that Mitt Romney looks and sounds like a President in a way that no other candidate has since at least Clinton, and possibly Reagan. His résumé is replete with executive success. He was a brilliant investment fund manager and the President of the Marriot Hotel chain. He rescued the Salt Lake City Olympics from bankruptcy and scandal. As governor of Massachusetts he worked with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature to find a workable healthcare solution.

He is good-looking and has a strong good-looking family at the heart of his team. This contrasts with rivals like twice-divorced Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton, whom many believe to be in an entirely fake marriage.

His problem is that people don’t trust him. It is true that he has changed his position on the question of abortion – a key deciding issue for many Republican primary voters. When running in Massachusetts he was committed to making no change in the law, which, as he puts it, made him “functionally pro-choice”. Now he is strongly anti-abortion. His change of view came when he was no longer running in liberal Massachusetts and seeking the support of socially conservative Republican primary voters.

The problem is that there is now established in the media and among some Republican activists an attitude that seeks to explain every shift of emphasis in his speeches as a flip flop. There was a particularly absurd example in the Washington Post last week. The paper suggested there was a contradiction in his current stand on abortion: that he supports overturning Roe v Wade and also a federal amendment to ban abortion. This is ridiculous. There are certainly some people who support overturning Roe – which would return the question to state legislatures – but oppose a federal amendment. However, all supporters of the federal amendment also support overturning Roe. It is just common sense. Returning the issue to the states would lead to abortion being illegal in some states. For abortion-foes this is obviously better than the current situation, though not as good as making it illegal everywhere.

The substantive change on his abortion stand and some shifts of emphasis on other issues do not make him a serial flip-flopper. But there is a desire in the mainstream media to slot everything that he says into this overarching narrative. It was the same in 2000. Any slip of the tongue by Al Gore was interpreted as evidence that he was lying. A similar slip by George Bush was evidence of stupidity.

Why should this be? It is, perhaps, related to his status as the candidate from central casting. It makes him seem slick. It makes it seem as though every policy posture was carefully selected. But so many of the things that make him seem so slick were not postures that he chose to adopt at all. The great hair, the strong family life, the business success – none of these were choices he made in order to be a candidate for President. When he is articulate, people call him ‘slick’. But, as blogger, Neil Stevens, asks on RedState, ‘what is wrong with polish?’ As Republicans grow frustrated with the inability of the current President to make a case for his policies, wouldn’t some polish be an advantage?

Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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