The PJ Tatler

What's Eating Mitt Romney?

George Neumayr asks why’s Mitt so mad, as he showed in that interview with Bret Baier this week. It’s a good piece, worth a read. Neumayr works through the current polls and concludes that Romney must be frustrated that he, an upstanding man whose worst moral failings seem to end with the one cig he smoked as an unruly teen, can’t break away from a field that’s currently led by a trio of himself, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain with their accused or affirmed cheating. The choirboy who studied hard and played by the rules resents the success of the slackers and rebels who didn’t. He’s the brother in the parable of the prodigal son.

I think that may be part of the reason Mitt’s mad this week, but not all of the reason.

Roll back to 2008. I was at Hot Air and later the Laura Ingraham show back then. Romney was running as the conservative businessman who had enough crossover appeal to win in Massachusetts. He touted his success with the Olympics, his business experience, and his win (but not really his record) in Massachusetts. As the primary wore on he became the credible conservative alternative to John McCain, or at least that became his narrative. His campaign did a great deal of direct outreach to blogs and conservative talk radio in those days, making him accessible, granting interviews, really being involved. He took a hard line on immigration, he took a hard line on the war, on just about everything. I ended up endorsing him, which definitely earned him one vote in a meaningless Maryland primary, and he also won the endorsements or recommendations of Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, etc. Many of the big guns of the conservative movement backed him over McCain and Huckabee.

And he lost to the moderate, aisle-crossing and uninspiring John McCain.

Mitt Romney is a smart man. He strikes me as a pragmatic corporate tinkerer and fixer, the kind of person who can examine a given situation, diagnose what’s wrong with it, and come up with a fix. He has probably spent the years between that 2008 campaign and the current one thinking and re-thinking about every move he made in that failed effort. Like an NFL coach poring over game film of the Super Bowl he lost, Romney has replayed much of the 2008 campaign in his mind, not in a weird regretful way, but so that he can figure out what went wrong and win next time. He seems to have concluded that since being the conservative candidate didn’t work then, he would try being the moderate now. Hey, that’s who won last time around, right?

So he hasn’t done the outreach to the conservative opinion sphere that he did last time around. That’s not speculation, it’s just a fact. His campaign this time is very different than the one he ran last time, no less professional but far less accessible. They send a blizzard of professional, impersonal emails that never really lend any sense of the man himself. He hasn’t presented himself, from the campaign’s earliest days, as the same kind of candidate he presented himself as last time. His current persona — moderate, avoid taking strong stands and avoid mistakes, play yourself off against the other candidates and allow them to play off of you as the dominant figure — is the “fix” to the “problem” that he diagnosed from the 2008 campaign.

But Romney didn’t lose in 2008 because he ran too far to the right. He lost because he wasn’t next in line (McCain was, after losing to Bush in 2000) and because he didn’t score that Crist endorsement in Florida. He can’t fix the former, except by being next in line now (which he is, and he’s factored that into his current campaign), and he probably couldn’t have done much about the latter. And there’s no Crist figure to offer such a decisive endorsement anywhere this time around. He got Christie, he got Pawlenty, he probably has more endorsements than anyone else. But he’s sinking and feeling like it’s 2008 all over again.

So I think he misdiagnosed why he lost last time, came up with the wrong fix, and is now stuck with it — and he’s started to realize that, as a succession of candidates has come and gone and now Newt Gingrich is really starting to threaten him. A man more secure in his core beliefs would probably not feel as threatened by the succession and Gingrich’s current rise as Romney does. He would reaffirm who he is and what he stands for and would find a way to regain momentum with a good ground game in the early states. But Romney can’t pull away because he can’t really get out of the paradigm he has trapped himself in, that of the aloof and inevitable nominee, the man who is next in line and the “only one who can beat Obama.” He isn’t that, he now knows it, and knows that his 2008 fix is now his 2012 problem. This chips at the core of what Romney thinks of himself, the competent corporate fix-it man.

That kind of realization would make for a pretty rough week for anyone.