Rick Perlstein: What Mitt Romney Learned From His Dad

Roundup: Historians' Take

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

Here is a truism about the psychology of politicians: there is almost nothing so soul-definingly traumatic for them as losing an election. You believe yourself a great man, a figure of destiny.  You love your job, or covet an even more important one—and then suddenly one day it's gone, all because the public decides it doesn’t love you any more. The trauma shapes future ideology: if you’re a conservative, say, you might become more conservative. That was the case for two pioneers of the Democratic Party's long march to the right: Joseph Lieberman, who lost a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, and Bill Clinton, who lost his reelection as Arkansas governor, both in 1980, a year of profound reckoning for Democrats who got blindsided by Ronald Reagan and his coattails.

I say there is almost nothing as traumatic for a politician than losing an election. Here's what might be even worse: You are an aspiring office-holder, a young and handsome and ambitious man on the rise, and your father loses an election. Dad is your hero, and then the world's goat; you start rethinking your vision of how the world works. Consider a third pioneering Democratic corporate sellout, Evan Bayh, who managed the 1980 Senate reelection campaign in which his fighting liberal father Birch Bayh lost to baby Reaganite Dan Quayle. Thereafter, as governor and senator from Indiana between 1989 and 1997, the son hardly met a right-wing idea he couldn't embrace.

In my first weekly online column for Rolling Stone, I'm here to write about another loser and son: George and Mitt Romney – both almost-certain Republican presidential nominees. Pollster Lou Harris said late in 1966 that George Romney, then governor of Michigan, "stands a better chance of winning the White House than any Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower." Then, just over a year later, he was humiliated with a suddenness and intensity unprecedented in modern American political history (of which more below). His son was 19 years old. What makes Mitt – né Willard – Romney, run? Much, I think, can be understood via that specific trauma....

[Richard Nixon] just bullshitted about Vietnam [unlike George Romney], hinting he had a secret plan to end it. The truth was a dull weapon to take into a knife fight with Richard Nixon – who kicked Romney's ass with 79 percent of the vote. When people call his son the "Rombot," think about that: Mitt learned at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills. Heeding the lesson of his father's fall, he became a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician. In 1994 he ran for senate to Ted Kennedy's left on gay rights; as governor, of course, he installed the dreaded individual mandate into Massachusetts' healthcare system. Then he raced to the right to run for president.

He's still inauthentic – but with, I think, an exception. Every time he opens his mouth on the subject of capitalism, he says what he sincerely believes, which happens to fit neatly with present-day Republican ideology: that rich people deserve every penny they have, and if people complain about anything rich people do, it's only because they're envious....

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