|"Seriously, guys, I'm really not so bad. Just give me a |
chance — I'll say anything you want. Really, anything!"
(Photo: Gage Skidmore)
If I had placed a bet in August on the outcome of the GOP race (good thing I didn't), I would have predicted Romney's collapse long before the Iowa caucuses, which will take place tomorrow.
So, I see it's time for me to change tone a bit. I misjudged on a couple fronts — namely, the uncanny ability of fellow GOP contenders to self-destruct (which, really, shouldn't have been so surprising, considering their overall caliber); and the powerful ally that Romney has found in previous primary campaign experience.
Romney is like the awkward college sophomore who still goes to high school parties. No one really wants him there (they all think he's kind of lame), but he's the only one who has a good fake ID, so they don't really have a choice. They begrudgingly accept his presence, even as they mumble profane insults under their breath when he tries to make conversation. They know he shows up just because he wants to feel important — not because he's one of them. He isn't.
The polls confirm this. Of the "frontrunners" who have taken their turn among the GOP pack, Romney is the only one whose support has neither spiked nor cratered. In fact, his average polling has been stuck between 15 and 25 percent the entire time, never once passing the quarter-century mark by more than a point. (Notably, his three closest rivals all have done that, two of them by significant margins.) Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry have all drawn their own versions of the Matterhorn on the poll tracking graph, reaching their respective summits before taking a nosedive. (Gingrich, I believe, isn't done falling yet.)
So, there you have it: The kids at the party don't want Romney there, but they're basically resigned to his presence, which explains his tepid, if relatively steady, poll numbers. Periodically, a cooler kid — perhaps a good ole' boy from Texas, a slimy congressman from Georgia, or a former pizza executive — will draw attention to himself, and the crowd will flock in his direction, until they realize that the kid, however cool he is, doesn't have a fake ID. And the party-goers are again confronted with the harsh reality: There's only one guy who can get the booze, so they can't dump him, even if they don't like him.
This is where the Republican Flavor of the Month phenomenon comes from, and it makes sense. Indeed, Romney is the only candidate among them who would be seriously competitive with Obama (whether or not he should be is another discussion). But GOP loyalists are right to view him skeptically, or even disdainfully, and thus constantly search for a better alternative. His persona (and appearance) corresponds nicely with that of a used-car salesman. He comes across as phony, even when he's probably being sincere. He's driven by personal ambition, not genuine concern for the country. He simply longs to be president, so much so that he'll say or do anything to achieve that goal — as evidenced by his sharp, often absurd position reversals and indeterminate stances. He knows that running as a Republican for president of the United States requires an ideological tone at odds with what he used as a candidate for Massachusetts senator or governor.
Still, he's survived the bumps and bruises of past campaigns at both the state and national level. These experiences, more than anything else, are probably how he's managed to stay viable this time around, despite his liabilities as a candidate and his transparently fake, self-serving nature. He may be the smelly kid, but at least he doesn't wet his pants in class, the way some others do.
It would be tempting to conclude that the Obama camp is more fearful of Romney than the other GOP hopefuls. I don't think that's true. I think they've viewed a prospective Romney nomination the same way that he has — with an air of inevitability — and have crafted their strategy accordingly. They've already begun to paint him as a serial flip-flopper who has no core (thank you, Bush/Cheney 2004), and they've seen that his above-the-fray, statesman-like facade quickly falters when he's stressed, frustrated, or pissed off. Will he be the formidable challenger that polls and pundits predict? I'm not yet convinced he will.
Regardless, it's increasingly difficult for me to envision a scenario in which Romney is not the nominee. Gingrich hasn't suffered a knockout punch (yet), but he's got plenty of baggage that could deliver one at any point, and he lacks Romney's war chest and ground game. All Romney needs to do at this point is be content with his lackluster poll numbers (he can't do much better), and sooner or later, he'll probably get it in the bag.
Sorry, Republicans, we know you don't like him, but he's gotta stay at the party. Just stick him in the corner and go socialize with the cool kids — but next time, invite at least one who has a fake ID.