Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Romney Syndrome

At one level, unless Romney is elected president, this post is pretty ephemeral. However, I’m using Romney to illustrate a larger point.

Although Romney is doing fairly well in certain primary states which he has assiduously courted with all the leisure time and money at his disposal, he hasn’t made any progress in narrowing the gap with Giuliani or a Johnny-come-lately like Thompson.

Mind you, his limited success in primary states is not to be underestimated. You don’t get nominated without winning primaries.

But why is he going nowhere in the national polls? Well, I can only speculate, but I think he suffers from three handicaps.

1.He’s Mormon. I suspect that a lot of Republicans are leery of voting for a member of a religious cult. I mean, would you cast your vote for Tom Cruise or John Travolta if they were running for high office?

2.He’s not a credible conservative. Sure, he’s now using all the right code words to reposition himself, but that’s the problem. When he was governor of Massachusetts, he governed as a liberal. (At least, that’s what I’ve read.).

That’s his track record. If you want to guess at how he could govern as president, the only frame of reference is his gubernatorial record.

Oh, and despite media myopia, his liberal positions weren’t limited to abortion.

Ironically, Romney has cast himself in the worst of both possible worlds, for he’s a liberal Mormon. So—on the one hand—he suffers the stigma of belonging to the one true Church of the Holy Underwear, while—on the other hand—he can’t cash in on the compensatory benefit of the family values image which Mormonism likes to project and promote for public consumption.

3.But I suspect there’s a final problem dogging Romney. He’s too princely. Indeed, he’s like the stereotypical candidate that Democrats prefer to run for the top office, viz., Wilson, FDR, Stevenson, JFK, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, &c.

And this cuts against the grain of the American mythos or American Dream. By and large, modern-day Democrats are elitists and wannabe Europeans. As such, they’re out of touch with most Republicans and swing voters.

What I call the American mythos or American dream is dramatized by popular and perennial cinematic theme of the working class athlete or small town sports team that must overcome various obstacles to beat the system. There are many variations on this theme, but think of movies like Hoosiers, Breaking Away, Gladiator, Remember the Titans, Rudy, Rocky, Vision Quest, Friday Night Lights, Miracle, or The Longest Yard.

As long as it’s done with a certain freshness, most Americans never tire of the story of the underdog from the wrong side of the tracks who triumphs over adversity through sheer spunky determination.

If you wish to see Romney’s problem in graphic terms, just try to visualize him in Hoosiers or Friday Night Lights. It’s the difference between bubbly and beer, Mozart and blue grass.

Romney is a Northeastern liberal who strayed into the wrong party. He’s going to the rodeo in a tux and top hat.

As a result, there’s a discernible pattern to the way the parties win or lose. Democrats can sometimes win if they hold their nose and run a candidate who comes from humble origins, or they can win if their patrician candidate is able to conceal his aristocratic roots.

In terms of his background, Bush is just as preppy as Kerry. Two Ivy League plutocrats. But the problem is that Kerry sounded preppy while Bush sounded like a West Texas cowboy. Ever since JFK, is almost a fluke when a Democrat captures the White House.

Likewise, the eminently forgettable and soon-to-be forgotten John Edwards is a laughingstock precisely because of the lurid disconnect between his pitchfork oratory and his goldplated lavatory.

We can also draw the contrast at a religious rather than political level, and the parallel will hold. Just compare the Episcopalians with the Baptists.

Anglicans exude the Old World. The church where the kings and queens of England used to worship, along with the peers of the realm.

By contrast, the Baptist ethos is proudly and profoundly blue collar. And this, in turn, taps into a certain Biblical emphasis as well. In Evangelical, and especially, Reformed theology, there’s no room for putting on airs of spiritual superiority.

Catholic theology is patrician whereas Evangelical theology is proletarian. Having lost the patronage of the monarchy, Catholicism flirts with the dirt-poor rhetoric of liberation theology to conceal its patrician roots and aspirtions. The princess dresses up as a peasant—like a Halloween costume for Paris Hilton. But Catholic theology is irredeemably aristocratic.

You can see this in its hierarchical polity, as well as the cult of the saints, where the saints are a spiritual aristocracy, capped by Mary as the Queen of Heaven.

To some extent, every presidential election is a ritual drama in which one party projects upper class values while the other class projects working class values. Sometimes the lines are blurred in practice since the process is not that self-conscious, but each party has its own center of gravity, and its respective candidates generally gravitate in that direction.

It’s an interesting question what this is grounded in. I suppose it’s due, in part, to the fact, that Americans deposed the Royalists in the Revolutionary War. It’s also due, in part, to the fact that we’re a land of immigrants. So we value achieved status over ascribed status.

But I also suspect there’s a religious component that underwrites this bias. Indeed, I think the religious and sociological dynamics reinforce each other. Baptist religion tends to select for a certain social class, just as Episcopalian religion tends to select for a certain social class. And these, in turn, tend to cultivate and confirm that sociological attraction. So the initial appeal is able to build on itself—although that can also and eventually undermine its own appeal if—in the case of the Episcopalian church—it becomes so secularized and worldly that there’s no longer any reason to attend church in the first place.


  1. Well thought out analysis. Have you considered that the decline in religiosity and the rise in secularism, while opposed by conservatives, at the same time provides Mitt Romney with the prime opportunity to speak to the American people a message of competence over canon, especially among Americans living in so-called battleground states such as Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, etc.? By virtue of the crowded field, Mitt may be able to win the nomination without winning a single state in the South, by virtue of grabbing delegate rich states in the midwest, northeast and west.

  2. I think the second factor Steve mentioned, credibility, is the biggest obstacle Romney has to overcome to get the nomination. If he had only been inconsistent on one issue, or if he had changed on a series of issues as a result of one change in his life that he could credibly point to (a religious conversion, a book he read, a person he met, etc.), the inconsistency wouldn't be so bad. But when he changes on a series of issues shortly before running for President, and he cites separate reasons for those changes, it's much more difficult to trust him.

    Something that significantly lowered my view of Romney was seeing his wife interviewed by Chris Wallace on the FOX News Channel earlier this year. I don't remember seeing anybody else comment on the interview, but I thought that it was significant in that it reinforced a common perception of Romney. I got the impression that Romney's wife has the same sort of credibility problem that her husband has. As I recall, the interview only lasted a few minutes, but I repeatedly noticed that she seemed to be avoiding the questions she was being asked, and her attempt to explain why she was claiming to be pro-life, after having donated to Planned Parenthood in the 1990s, didn't seem credible. Mitt Romney and his wife remind me of Bill and Hillary Clinton, though the Romneys are better on the issues (in the positions they're now taking) and don't seem to have the same sort of moral problems in their background that the Clintons had. Despite some differences, the Romneys seem similar to the Clintons in the sense of having a willingness to be highly inconsistent in order to attain their political objectives.

    Considering how bad the modern Democratic party is, Mitt Romney would be far better than the Democratic alternative. I'll vote for Romney if he's the Republican candidate. But I think that, barring any major changes, Republicans should nominate Fred Thompson instead. Giuliani isn't conservative enough. Gingrich and Huckabee have too much of an electibility problem (for different reasons). Thompson, at this point, seems to have the best balance of conservatism and electibility. I think most of the Republican candidates would be able to defeat Hillary Clinton without much difficulty. Even somebody like Gingrich or Huckabee would have a good chance, if the Republicans would be sufficiently assertive of their own conservatism and Hillary Clinton's liberalism, but going with somebody like Thompson seems to be significantly less risky and a better overall strategy. If the American people weren't so immature, we wouldn't have to be so concerned about defeating a candidate like Hillary Clinton, and we could have a more conservative Republican candidate. But we have to take the political context into account when choosing who to vote for.

  3. I think Romney will be done in by his 'magic underwear' cult. I mean, seriously, who could vote for somebody that believes crap like those guys believe?

    Talking snakes and bushes are so much more credible.


  4. 'In Evangelical, and especially, Reformed theology, there’s no room for putting on airs of spiritual superiority.'

    That's interesting, since evangelicals and Reformed-types generally do a far better job at coming across as spiritually superior than, say, Anglicans or Catholics. So either they really are spiritually superior, or they do a good job of putting on airs. In my experience it's usually the latter.

    Of course, this is just my own experience. (Though I know from talking to other believers I'm not alone this assessment.) Strictly FWIW.

  5. 'Having lost the patronage of the monarchy, Catholicism flirts with the dirt-poor rhetoric of liberation theology to conceal its patrician roots and aspirtions.'

    But liberation theology came from below. It emerged primarily from the people, not the clergy. Basically you had Catholic missionaries introducing Bibles and Xianity to the poor, to find that these ordinary, oppressed, hungry farmers engaged the thing on a whole new level.

    The people didn't need the clergy's help to come up with a reading of the NT, and JC in particular, that gives a privileged place to the poor. It's right there in the text. All that was needed was a society of poor and oppressed people to recognize it.

    (Sorry that these two remarks are off the main topic of the post. I generally do agree with your analysis of Romney and his chances.)

  6. Several of the comments made by the author and subsequent posts are quite un-Christian. Everyone holds their faith dear, and every faith has beliefs that look ridiculous when held to secular light. What goes around comes around.

    Romney was remembered as too conservative in his Governor role, to the Mass liberals dismay. It is ludicrous and urban legend to assert the other way around.

    Early National polls don't predict the outcome. The primary states and ongoing trends do. Romney is brilliant and knows what he is doing strategy wise.

    This article is replete with sophistry.

  7. Shawnie said...

    "Several of the comments made by the author and subsequent posts are quite un-Christian. Everyone holds their faith dear, and every faith has beliefs that look ridiculous when held to secular light. What goes around comes around."

    It's your religious pluralism that's un-Christian:

    "Romney was remembered as too conservative in his Governor role, to the Mass liberals dismay. It is ludicrous and urban legend to assert the other way around."

    Refute the following:

  8. Shawnie said:

    “Everyone holds their faith dear, and every faith has beliefs that look ridiculous when held to secular light.”

    But we haven’t been evaluating Romney by “secular light”. We’ve evaluated him according to Christian standards, such as by criticizing the anti-Biblical beliefs of his religion and his inconsistencies on abortion and other issues. And we haven’t denied that he’s done some good or that he’s significantly better than Hillary Clinton. I said that I’ll vote for him if he’s the Republican nominee. I would say that our comments on Romney are more balanced than yours.

  9. Steve Said "But why is he going nowhere in the national polls? "

    Have you followed the national polls? Romney has gone from 4/5% in national polls back in March to 14/15% now. How is that going nowhere? I agree Romney has issues to overcome but he is gaining ground in the national polls. Contrary to your assesment I think he comes across as pretty genuine, not robotic.

  10. SJB said:

    "Contrary to your assesment I think he comes across as pretty genuine, not robotic."

    I think he often comes across as genuine, but sometimes doesn't. If we only had his current behavior to go by, it could make sense to give him the benefit of the doubt. But, as the material Steve linked above illustrates, Romney has been inconsistent on the issues. We don't just have his current behavior to go by. In the past, he portrayed himself as more like Ted Kennedy and less like Ronald Reagan. Now he's doing the opposite. It's not as if we have to choose between Mitt Romney and Lincoln Chafee. With men like Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee running, why would we go with Romney?

  11. Good points about Romney. This is an excellent argument for Ron Paul.

    Ron Paul is leading in the straw poll wins. He won 4 out fo the last 5 GOP debates according to the host's voting system.

    Ron Paul is a Christian, a conservative, and the only chance that the GOP has at defeating Hitlary/Obummer.

    As a rabid lover of freedom (and an atheist), I have been reaching across the isle to Christians to show them that Ron Paul is the best bet for president in 08, whether youre an atheist or a Christian or a Scientologist or whatever.

    Ron Paul respects individualism, which means that if he is president, both theists and atheists can have it their way.

    I sincerely urge all of you to take a look at Ron Paul's message. Google him. Watch his videos on YouTube. Look at his stances on the issues, and you will see that he is 1) the only chance the GOP has to defeat the Dems in 08, and 2) the best damn president we could ever hope for.