The Man Without Qualities
Does Anybody Like Mitt Romney? Is There Anything to Like? Is There Anything There at All?
I've been in the same room with Mitt Romney twice—in Des Moines and Bellevue. I've been in rooms full of people who voted for Romney in the Iowa and Washington State caucuses. I've shared disgusting hotel bathrooms covered in litter and puddles of questionable fluids with men wearing baseball hats and pins bearing Romney's name and Romney T-shirts awkwardly pulled over their very expensive Oxford-cloth button-down shirts. I've stood in line with people at cold ungodly hours of the morning as we all waited to be allowed into Romney rallies. And I have never, once, met a Mitt Romney fan.
I have looked far and wide, halfway across this country and back, and I have not found a human being who is genuinely fond of Romney and believes that, based on the strength of his character, he would make a great president. I'm not talking about an anti-Obama Republican; there are plenty of people who will vote for Romney because he's not Barack Obama. But I have not talked with one person who will vote for Mitt Romney because he's Mitt Romney. And I've tried. E-mails and phone calls to prospective Romney fans went unanswered. Google searches were fruitless. Hell, even our state's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rob McKenna, hasn't made a public appearance with Romney.
This has been pointed out before: Republican support behind Romney, the candidate running against Obama, is strong, but Republican support of Willard Mitt Romney, the alleged human being, is practically nonexistent.
And at no other time has this been more evident than in the battle over Romney's tax returns.
After a whole lot of whining from Newt Gingrich during the primaries, Romney released part of his 2010 tax return and an estimate for his 2011 tax return, which he says he will release as soon as it is ready. But that's it. His campaign has taken so much heat for those unreleased tax returns from the press and the Obama campaign that one has to assume there must be something really bad in there—worse than the offshore accounts that give the appearance that Romney has no confidence in the United States as an investment anymore and worse than the exploited loopholes that result in Romney's tiny 15 percent tax rate.
Can you even imagine what must be in those tax returns? The Obama campaign has wondered aloud, in TV commercials, whether Romney paid any taxes at all for several of the years he's hiding. The Romney campaign responded that those allegations are ridiculous—of course Governor Romney paid taxes, they huffed—but they won't release any proof.
It's gotten so bad that even Republicans who don't like Obama are begging Romney to release his tax returns. Whatever is in those tax returns can't possibly be as bad as the imaginations of the American voting public, these pundits and elder statesmen of the party are saying. Maine senator Olympia Snowe, Georgia senator Johnny Isakson, Alabama governor Robert Bentley, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, and Indiana senator Dick Lugar have all suggested that Romney needs to release his tax returns so he can focus on some other issue. Even Republican pundits like Bill Kristol and the huffy-but-somehow-venerable George Will have demanded that Romney release the records. ("The cost of not releasing the returns are clear," Will said on ABC's This Week. "Therefore, he must have calculated that there are higher costs in releasing them.") Democrats on Twitter are happily recycling a witty argument of unknown provenance that says when John McCain's inner circle was looking for a vice president, Romney's people turned over 23 years of tax returns for their perusal and, after looking over Romney's taxes, the McCain people thought that Sarah Palin was a wiser VP choice.
The sinister image of secret tax records hiding unspeakable terrors contributes to a serious problem of Romney's. I'm not the first person to recognize that Romney is straight out of central casting for Evil '80s Corporate Robber Baron. His nervous snicker, his impossible hair, his burnished skin and just-right wrinkles, and the weird way his perfect teeth sort of float around inside of his smile—it just reeks of movie badguydom. He looks like the kind of sleazy lizard-man who—in sci-fi satires like Blade Runner and Robocop and The Dark Knight Returns and Escape from New York and all those dystopian '80s nightmare fables about corporate personhood—lingers behind in the spotless futuristic employee bathrooms to whisper terrible implied threats to low-level drones who dare to ask too many questions about where the money is coming from.
It's not bad enough that the evil businessmen in these movies and comic books destroyed America, privatizing the police departments and deregulating industry to the point where toxic waste sits out in public places, waiting to turn any schlub who bumps into a rusty barrel or two into a shrieking, tumorous freak. No, the thing that makes those bad guys in the suits and skinny ties so unctuous and creepy is their fakeness, and that fakeness is part of what freaks many people out about Romney. Something about him inspires the suspicion that somewhere inside Mitt Romney is a tiny alien making his meat puppet dance by tugging on strings of cartilage and tendon, emulating human behavior that it read about once in a book from the 1950s.
My favorite scary story related to Romney is from Michael Kranish and Scott Helman's biography The Real Romney, and it's actually about Romney's father, former Michigan governor George Romney. After George had wed Lenore, the woman who became Mitt's mother, he realized that the key to a good marriage was continually wooing your spouse. And so he went about it in the most robotic fashion possible. Every morning before Lenore woke, he would leave the house, buy a single red rose, return, and leave it on her pillow so that it would be the first thing she would see on waking. Every day of their 64-year marriage, George did this. Every single day. This is the kind of grandiose, unimaginative, absurd promise a cheesy R&B singer would make ("Ooooh, baby, love you so much—unh!—wanna leave a red rooooooooose on ya pillow—ooooh!—ev-er-y moan-in'!"), and George Romney lived it, because it was his idea of what everyone else's idea of a perfect romance was. One day, Lenore woke up and the rose wasn't there. She thought to herself, "George must be dead." And she got out of bed and padded around the house until she found her husband's body in the room they had turned into a gym, twisted up at the end of the treadmill, his heart cold and quiet.
This is something that Mitt Romney learned from his father and took into his heart and embraced as the primary goal of his life: Don't just be a normal person—overdo it. Don't just do 110 percent of whatever you're going to do: Do it 225 percent, and make fucking well sure that everyone around you knows that you're doing 225 percent. When then Massachusetts senatorial candidate Romney revealed a little bit of his sneering well-to-do nature during a photo op by making a joke about a veterans' shelter teaching the homeless to milk cows because milk was too expensive, he saw the criticism from the press and realized he made a mistake. Then he didn't just apologize; according to The Real Romney, he talked to his people about it and made sure that for years afterward, some tiny rivulet of the mighty Romney fortune was put toward subsidizing the shelter's milk, paying for half of the thousand pints a day that the shelter required. For hundreds of weeks, shipments of conciliatory milk arrived at the shelter's door, probably well past the point when anybody on staff remembered the slight. Like the story of George and the roses, it's almost touching, except there's that creepy overcompensation again. You get the sense that Romney didn't learn a lesson—your normal candidate would have showed up with a crate of milk and a sheepish grin the next day and made some apologies and called it a wash—but instead was trying to tip the scales back into his favor and undo the mistake by killing it dead with "kindness."
Two facets of Mitt Romney play into this kind of intense overcompensation. On the one hand, you have the businessman who plays for keeps. Romney was the head of Bain Capital for so long, he probably isn't used to being told no. When you're sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president, as Romney was at Bain Capital from 1984 to 2002, pretty much everyone has to do your bidding. But when you enter politics, people tell you no all the time. And so you do what a businessman does: You try to take them over. By any means necessary.
But the other side has to do with Romney's Mormon faith. Anyone who has ever visited Salt Lake City and felt like an extra on a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers knows that Mormons are creepily perfect. Maybe this is just what happens to humans when you take away booze and caffeine and illicit sex; when breaking the rules isn't an option, you become obsessed with being "normal" and following every rule. (Remember Romney's "prank" as a rambunctious teenager: holding down a fellow student and cutting his long hair as the boy wept and pleaded for Romney to stop. The reason he cut the boy's hair? According to Romney's friends at the time, he couldn't stop making exasperated statements about how unnatural it was: "That's wrong. Just look at him!")
Or maybe this is what happens when your religion is relentlessly mocked, persecuted, and reviled. If you keep smiling and holding doors open for little old ladies, maybe people will stop caring that you think the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri, and that Jesus once visited South America on a secret mission. If you unleash a river of milk as an apology for a dumb joke, maybe people won't think about how you expect to rule over a distant planet as God after you die. If you tithe 10 percent of your income to a church that publicly commits huge, overt works of charity, maybe people won't notice that your religion believed black people were cursed by God and thus not allowed into the Mormon priesthood until 1978, or will forget about the millions of dollars your church pledged to successfully fight gay marriage in California.
This overcompensation principle has worked well for Romney in his professional life. His personal fortune is estimated at somewhere between $200 million and $250 million, and his command of Bain was often described as dictatorial. I reiterate: He was so successful at his job that he won't allow the American people to look at his tax records for any year before 2010.
So by any monetary metric, Romney is wildly successful. But is he well liked? No. In fact, just about every Republican presidential contender who faced Romney in the 2008 and 2012 primaries hates his guts. They all detest his aloofness, the cloud of entitlement that circles him like a caviar fart, and the weird overcompensation that surrounds everything Romney does. Generally, once the campaign is over, most candidates manage to forge a kind of peace, and even friendship—at least they can bond over so many shared, surreal experiences—but that did not happen with Romney.
Republicans and Democrats who worked with Romney in Massachusetts loathe the man. When he became governor, his staff claimed an elevator in the statehouse in Boston for Romney's own exclusive use, keeping it separated from the rest of the bank of elevators by a velvet rope. This was unprecedented—for as long as there had been elevators in the statehouse, they had been for everyone to use—and it symbolized the arm's length reach he reserved for state legislators. In Massachusetts—where politics is built on a thick bed of cronyism and behind-the-scenes deals—this was unheard of. And it led to Romney's collapse in the polls: It's widely believed that Romney didn't run for a second term as governor in 2006 because polls showed he would be easily defeated by a number of Democratic challengers.
And it seems that this personal distaste extends to everyday Republican voters. My search for a Romney supporter was fruitless. I considered interviewing local radio host Michael Medved, who in March introduced Romney at a Bellevue rally I attended—Medved breathlessly praising himself for being the first conservative commentator to get behind Romney in a big way. But I didn't want to use Medved as an example because Medved is a dolt. Any jackass could have looked at the field of adult toddlers and superstitious half-wits running for the Republican nomination and predict that Romney was going to be the nominee; hell, I put it in writing here in The Stranger in May of 2011. Medved's starry-eyed adoration of Romney crosses from the rational into the realm of the unthinking ascetic. With his cooing words of praise ("Mormonism is a blessing to our country! Everybody knows that. Everybody can see it. Look at the works of charity, look at the positive communities, look at the uplift of the poor. By the way, look at the state of Utah!"), Medved resembles a lapdog that has been trained to pretend it's a pit bull.
I finally talked on the phone with Chris Vance, a public affairs consultant who served as a member of the King County Council and chair of the Washington State Republican Party. Vance, who was excited to speak his opinion as "a private citizen" and not as a pundit or official spokesperson for the party, admitted on the record what several Republicans I talked to would not: He was not a Mitt Romney fan. Vance decided to support Romney because "he was clearly the best choice" out of all the Republicans in the 2012 campaign. He admitted, "I don't know any Republicans who are excited about Romney in the same way that they were about Reagan or even George W. Bush."
So if Romney's record and policies didn't appeal to Vance, why did he decide to support him? "Politics is more about party than personality, and people hate to hear that," Vance said. "The next president will appoint hundreds of people to positions," and he wants Republicans in those positions. "What Republicans do like about Mitt Romney is that he's a very standard Republican," and Vance believes that "within the spectrum of the Republican Party, he's centrist."
"Republicans are going to have to accept some revenue increases," he said, and "Democrats are going to have to accept some cuts." Vance thinks the "blueprint to save us" is the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan to reduce the deficit. Simpson-Bowles proposes cuts for government safety-net plans and raises several key taxes by reducing deductions for mortgages and health insurance. It's so bipartisan, nobody's happy with it. President Obama and Romney have both rejected Simpson-Bowles, but Vance believes that Romney has secretly signaled support for it in recent weeks.
What it comes down to is that Vance is hoping that Romney can do what Obama promised and failed to do—find solutions to problems that have haunted America for years. He doesn't think we've seen the real Romney yet. "I think Mitt Romney has been saying and doing what he has to do to win the election," Vance said. He doesn't know if Romney will bring the parties together, but he hopes so. "I know Obama has created nothing but partisan chaos and partisan gridlock. I'm hoping that Romney would govern differently."
But is that even true? Back before Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, and Newt Gingrich conspired in an unholy alliance to turn the Republican presidential campaign into a Sherman's march on the American poor and just about every minority there is, I thought Romney would try to run to the middle during the general election and convince centrist Democrats that a Romney presidency wouldn't be so bad. When Americans think the presidential election is a battle between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber, Republicans tend to win. But the Republican primary left scorched earth in its wake all across the country, and to win, Romney had to say some awful things. He's come out hard against reproductive rights, gay rights, the poor, Latinos, unions, and government workers.
But on most issues, Romney isn't really running on anything. Unless he absolutely needs to, he refuses to talk to the press, presumably because he's a terrible extemporaneous speaker. He has plans to cut government agencies, but he won't say which agencies he'll cut. Nobody knows what his education plans are or what his opinion on immigration really is. It's remarkable that this man has been in the public sphere for more than four years and has managed to keep his policies—if he in fact has any policies—a total secret from everyone.
Even worse are the things he has said. Like a true caricature from the 1980s, Romney has announced that Russia is "without question our number one geopolitical foe," when most Americans would be hard-pressed to put it in the top 10. He's strangely antagonistic toward China, especially considering his past job profited from sending jobs to China as a matter of course. Romney continually talks about his weird desire to improve the US Navy and make it the envy of the world. Though Romney is ostensibly for small government, he says he'll refuse to cut military spending one single cent. His foreign-policy advisers are almost 100 percent from the George W. Bush White House.
No, Romney can't run on the issues, because he can't admit what his issues really are. And he can't run on his record as a politician. His Senate campaign crashed and burned to a loss of 17 percent in the biggest election year for Republican wins on record. Except for the health-care reform he championed—Romneycare was supposed to be the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, before his party veered to the right and ran it down dead—Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts is terrible. He cut funds to public education. Massachusetts fell to 47th in the nation for job creation. Hell, even Romneycare relied on funds from the federal government to really work.
So what does Romney have left? He's "a businessman." He can't even say he'll govern as a "CEO president," because George W. Bush used that line already, and Romney can't afford to remind people that the last "CEO president" we had presided helplessly over the destruction of a major American city, drove the economy at top speed into a brick wall, and then made his friends try to pin the accident on the nearest black guy.
So. "A businessman." Sounds amorphous and vaguely sinister, like a background character in some boardroom in, say, Robocop. The Obama campaign is merrily tearing Romney's business record to pieces this month, detailing his record of retroactive retirement, outsourcing, layoffs, and scrap-heap capitalism—tearing businesses to pieces and leaving whole American towns with their hearts ripped out. The business of "business," it seems, is messy, brutal work, and it's not very clear that America, with its long history of fictionalized bad guys in black suits and skinny ties tearing down baseball fields to put up another soulless shopping mall unless the lovable losers work together to win the big tournament, has any stomach for the realities and intricacies of it.
So then you take that away, and what do you have left? A terrible public speaker who often looks terrified or becomes enraged when he's called on to answer a basic question. A former CEO who couldn't look more uncomfortable in a pair of jeans if he were allergic to denim. A man in a suit sputtering over the terrible things he's done, trying to milk some sense of pride out of broken families and a fortune made from sucking the marrow out of America's rusty spine. A terrible singer trying to inflate eager crowds on winds of patriotism and nostalgia that not even he truly believes. A cowering man in a suit on the screen, waving his hands in front of his face and begging Robocop not to kill him for profiting, for draining the United States dry and exploiting the pain and hard work of others, for doing what businessmen do.