Thursday, August 9, 2007

Mitt Unplugged, or Oedipus Romney: Why Romney's best virtue may lose him the nomination.

This video has been getting some mileage around the 'nacle (and the rest of the internet to a lesser extent) as of late.

Those who read this blog will probably know that I am leery of Mitt Romney. On the other hand, my opinion of Romney went up when I watched the video. The general consensus both on the 'nacle and elsewhere seems to be that Romney did a great job defending himself and his church. I agree that the video shows us Romney at his best. My interest lies in why Romney seems so much better in this video than on the regular campaign trail.

My political misgivings about Romney I've explained elsewhere. But stylistically, my criticism of the regular campaign trail Romney is that he is always on script. He doesn't seem to know how to give an answer that directly addresses the question rather than giving an answer that addresses the question enough not to be evasive but that is really an attempt to get back to the campaign talking points. Romney is hardly the only political candidate to fall victim to this vice. But he has mastered the technique so well that he arouses suspicion. Add to that the fact that he is a successful wealthy businessman, handsome, and has a nice family, and you can really begin to understand that criticism that he is "too perfect."

But here, perhaps because he might not have known the camera was on, he was engaged with the issue, not with the talking points. He realized that the interviewer was was not going to let him get back to the talking points unless he resolved the issue, so he took it head-on, not backing down. It gives us a chance to see Romney thinking on his feet, and being articulate, not just drawing on a catalog of sound bites. It was refreshing.

So what made Romney get off his robotic message tricycle? Was it just the fact that the interviewer was an irritating Skousenite? (He's got to be the only non-Mormon Skousenite out there.) That might have had something to do with it. But it seems more likely to me that Romney was more personally engaged because he had more personally (as opposed to politically) at stake. Let me explain: when people attack Romney for being inconsistent or for changing his mind, (aka "flip-flopping") he has political clout to lose. But when a non-Mormon with a mistaken understanding of the church's position on abortion accuses Romney of having violated that position, he attacks Romney's personal religious commitment and also, his mis-characterization of the policy falsely represents the church. Therefore, Romney's church and his faith, two things closer to his heart than his politics (hopefully) are attacked. This is why Romney says "I don't like coming on the air to have you go after me and my church."

So it's an irony worthy of Greek tragedy that Romney, trying to win the Republican nomination, is at his best when defending a the moderate position of the church against the more right-wing fringe of the party. I say its ironic because those are the people he needs to play to if he's going to have a prayer at getting the nomination. This is not because republicans as a whole are extremists, but because, unfortunately, the extremists turn out to vote in the primaries in larger numbers and exert more influence on the nomination process.

Some politicians cannot think off message. Romney demonstrates that he can. It's a rare talent; and he ought to show that off by responding more directly and being more honest and passionate. It was one of a few a smart moves his campaign has made (you can count them on one hand) to release the video. Most Americans, I think, will respond better to this Romney than campaign trail Romney. The only question is whether the right-wing party hacks in St. Paul this year will think like most Americans.

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