"I Don't Think There is a Real Mitt Romney Anymore" -- Interview with Samuel Popkin

News at Home

David Austin Walsh is editor of the History News Network.

Mitt Romney at a rally in Virginia Beach. Credit: Flickr/Toby Alter.

Last May, I spoke with UC San Diego political scientist Sam Popkin about his latest book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win -- and Hold -- The White House and the lessons from the book that could be applied to the 2012 election. With the first presidential debate a little over a week away and Election Day a little over a month distant, I spoke with Dr. Popkin on the phone about the latest developments in the race.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about the dynamics of the current campaign from the perspective that you employed in The Candidate.

Right. Well, it's actually been very surprising! Despite writing a book warning about resumes, I expected more from Mitt Romney. I mean, honestly, I have been surprised by the lurching quality and the campaign's lack of advanced planning. Whether or not it matters in the end, it surprised me. In particular, I'm thinking of all the off-shore accounts that could have been closed earlier, the income tax return thing, or just general strategy. I mean, the Romney campaign should have thought out more carefully about how far he'd have to go to the right in the primaries, and and how to do it to get through the primaries without straying too far from the middle. But what was most surprising to me was that we never heard a good reason why the health care plan that he so positively touted to the president as the model in 2009 he's now promising to dismantle.

Part of the reason I think the Republicans were really ecstatic about the selection of Paul Ryan as the running mate was that they believe he agrees with them that Obamacare is horrible. But he can't fully agree with them and he can't fully denounce it because he can't explain how he would keep the pre-existing conditions clause without keeping the whole plan.

Romney's comments to that group of donors in May did not make him sound like the kind of politician that would back any form of government-mandated health care. So the question is -- and it's the question that's dogged him throughout the entire campaign, including the primaries -- who is the real Mitt Romney?

I think there isn't one anymore. When you're a Bain consultant, your job is to go in and sell the head of any corporation on the planet, “I can make you better at whatever it is you're doing.” Romney's saying to the voters, “You want me to fix health care, I'll fix health care. You want me to dismantle it, I'll dismantle it.” His job is to close the sale and fix the company.

I had dinner with some Republican Harvard Business School graduates the other night, and one of them was quoting The Candidate to me, the first chapter of it. “You've got it in there when you pointed out that presidential candidates are doing two very different things -- they're being a CEO and the head of a start-up, and almost nobody can do both well.”

It made me realize how very smart George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were, when they avoided over-promising. I just wrote a piece for Jim Fallows about doing principled pandering. By that I mean, you can't promise two groups the whole loaf. You can't assume any promises you make won't get reported. So you can't go to a group of wealthy donors and damn everybody who's on welfare or receiving government support without getting in trouble later when people hear the speech.

How damaging are these gaffes that Romney makes?

The 47 percent video didn't change many votes because it simply confirmed the image of Romney as the cold, calculating CEO -- he may be brilliant and hard-working, but he's out for himself. And what's new about that image?

But what it does is make it so that anything he says that contradicts what he said at that fundraiser will be a transparent attempt to cover up his real feelings. It really blocks him from doing a lot of maneuvering that he might have wanted to do.

How does this affect him going into the debates?

If he turned out to be the warmest, nicest guy alive or if he turned out to be the sharpest debater alive, I don't think that it matters unless something happens that makes people say, “I better take another look at Mitt, there's something to him I missed.” If he can convince voters he's been miscast and they should reexamine his policies, then he has a chance.

But what will make people say, “You know, it was wrong for me to think of him that way”? Nobody says the problem with him is he's nice, nobody says the problem is that he's not handsome, nobody says he isn't a success or that he doesn't have a beautiful wife, the worries are about what he's going to do.

So does he have the same problem Richard Nixon had, when people would say, “Oh, there's just something about that guy, and I'm not sure what it is, but I just don't like him”?

Let me make a contrast between Romney and Nixon, or at least Nixon's '68 campaign. Everything you're saying about Nixon was true in '68 -- “Oh, that guy, I don't really like him, I don't really want to have dinner with him, he wouldn't be much fun to go to a movie with, he's a goldfish.” But he never campaigned as a “nice guy” in '68 -- Richard Nixon was known to be a tough, smart hawk on foreign policy, and his party was clearly on the side of law and order during the riots. So what he was known for (and what his party was known for) was a 100 percent fit for people fed up with both black power and Vietnam. If you were a hawk and you didn't want to put up with the burning cities, you knew what he stood for -- he didn't even have to open his mouth. But if your party's in trouble and you want to run on an issue that the party is murky and vague on, then you have to fill in the specifics.

Look, the Republican Party overreached, as all takeover parties seem to do if they come to power in the midterm of a president's first term -- like the Republicans in '46 and '94. And in 2010, they were going to come in and change everything, just like Taft tried to do with Truman in the first month of 1947. But they've overreached, and Romney, to get through the primary, made unnecessarily strong commitments to the far right when there was nobody even conceivable in that pool who could run for president but him.

He had none of the vagueness of George W. Bush. Bush was asked in 1999 to pledge to never hire gays and lesbians, and he said, I never make promises like that, because I've been a sinner myself. He didn't say “gays are evil” -- instead, he deflected the question. It took finesse. Clinton never promised that he'd never raise taxes, because, he said, it would be a destructive promise that no president should ever make.

Romney, by contrast, went clumsily over the edge.

But hasn't the Republican Party changed since 2000? If you're a moderate -- or at least if you've got a moderate record -- don't you sort of have to make these sorts of ritual statements?

But you can do it carefully. He didn't have to denounce contraception. He didn't have to go even tighter and tougher on immigration. He could have explained that his health care plan in Massachusetts embodied conservative principles, but instead he acted like it was an evil affliction.

Despite the gaffes, though, the race has been pretty static poll-wise.

But I think that if Obama wins, it's going to be a bigger win than people think. Unless, of course, Republican voter suppression can knock off 2 percent in three states -- but if the Democrats are on the job and make sure everybody has their IDs, or that white people who forget them can't vote either, then this can be a big win.

Is there anything Romney can do to bring up his numbers -- setting aside any potential October surprise?

It won't be easy. He has to somehow convince people that the Democratic case against him is either out of date or so inaccurate that people have to take another look at him.

Think of it this way -- you've been driving Hondas for thirty years. What will Toyota have to do to convince you that they're better now than they were thirty years ago, when you decided Hondas were better. That's what he has to do.

And as for the October surprise -- what could it be? If Israel bombs Iran, Obama wins forty-five states.


He's the president, we're at war, it's a world crisis! Obama's handling it, and Romney can't even pronounce the names of the countries. All he could say is that Obama should have started the war sooner.

But what about if there's additional violence in Egypt or Libya or Jordan, or if another government topples that's an American ally...

I doubt voters are going to say, “We should elect Mitt Romney so he can send in the entire army!”?

And so you don't think the debates will dramatically affect the outcome?

The debates can only open a door or confirm a conclusion. Mondale, in the first '84 debate, won the biggest victory of a challenger in history. It barely moved the polls -- a couple of points for a couple of days.

Obama has to worry about not appearing petulant and looking like he's sour and defensive and lacks vision. Romney has never really shown a vision.

In the media recently, there's been a lot of talking up Romney's experience as a debater.

Well, he's a superb debater, and I expect Obama to do very poorly in the first debate, because presidents are in a bubble -- they never have anything nasty said to their face. It's very important to understand that every incumbent has a very hard time getting off of the “running-the-world” frame of mind and getting back down into the political circus.

But if the Mondale lesson still holds true, a bad debate performance in the first debate is not decisive in the long run.

A good debate performance by Romney would be won not by personality, but by policy. He needs to convince voters to give his policies a second look. It's got to be something that looks totally honest -- and compatible with his previous statements -- that makes people say, “oh, I didn't get it before.”

And it sounds like you don't think he can pull that off.

Well, I think that most of the problem isn't Romney -- it's the Republican Party hog-tying him. The Massachusetts Romney who started running in 2009 would probably be ahead four points. What if he ran on his health care plan, saying “I've got the same plan as Obama, and I'm a job maker.”

It sounds as if you're saying that “me-too” Republicanism of the '30s, '40s, and '50s would be a winner in this election.

If he was Obama + jobs, why would you stay with Obama? If he said, “Barack Obama's done one thing right -- health care, since it's my plan anyway, I'll keep it going, and then I'll do all the things he doesn't know how to do,” like jobs, jobs, jobs, then you wouldn't have these issues like Medicare, Social Security, and pre-existing conditions that are killers for so many people. It would only be immigration and jobs.

comments powered by Disqus