And that’s the thing about people who mean everything they say.
They think everyone else does too.
– Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Every summer, the Romney family retreats to their New Hampshire lakefront compound to spend time away from the stresses of everyday life. And while they certainly find time to relax – there are trips to the local ice cream shack, every night there are massive family dinners, late night evenings are sometimes spent watching movies, and some nights are dedicated just to conversation and advice – the family also competes in highly competitive events that have come to be known as the “Romney Family Olympics.”
The type of events included in the Romney Olympics are wide and varied. The Romneys engage in traditional family sporting events: kayaking and waterskiing, playing basketball, finding out who can throw a football the furthest, and staging home-run derbies. But they also compete in non-traditional events like seeing who can hang onto a pole the longest and who can hammer the most nails into a board in two minutes. George Romney, Mitt’s father, began the tradition and handed the practice down to Mitt in the 1980s, before he made his fortune. Now that Mitt has the reigns, trips to New Hampshire are obligatory. For the past six years, Romney has insisted that each family member dedicate one day to the Romney Family Olympics. And one thing is certain: Romney does not like to lose.
Throughout the 2012 Republican Primary, the American people were regaled with outlandish statements from Republican candidates all vying for the chance to dislodge President Obama from the White House. Rick Santorum threw his support behind income inequality, pledged to repeal all federal funding for contraception because “it’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be,” and likened same-sex relationships to inanimate objects like trees, basketballs, beer, and paper towels. Michele Bachmann claimed that the HPV vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer, has “very dangerous side effects.” Newt Gingrich, to raucous applause, pledged that “we will have the first permanent base on the moon” by the end of his first term, and, in case anyone was in doubt, “it will be American.” Herman Cain embraced intellectualism, declaring proudly that “We need a leader, not a reader.” Rick Perry flatly ignored the First Amendment’s separation of church and state by holding a government-funded prayer rally for a “nation in crisis,” calling on Jesus Christ to bless and guide the nation’s military and political leaders.
The substance of each of these statements is remarkable. But what became absolutely clear is the salient fact that, despite their falsity, egregiousness, or offensiveness, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Hermain Cain and Rick Perry all deeply believed in the statements they uttered and the actions they took. It does not concern Rick Santorum, for example, that income inequality in the United States is worse than in 1774 and even worse than during the Roman Empire, or that the wealth held by the top 400 Americans is more than the combined wealth of the bottom 150 million. Nor did it matter to Michele Bachmann that her claim about the HPV vaccine was quickly refuted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, and virtually everyone else. To these men and woman, what they believed was true. It didn’t matter what anybody else thought or what the facts dictated. They all followed, in other words, the following maxim by Louisa May Alcott: “He who believes is strong; he who doubts is weak. Strong convictions precede great actions.”
Standing in the middle of the political firestorm was Mitt Romney. Romney, who has been running for president nonstop since 2007, largely avoided making controversial statements during the Republican Primary, and he secured the Republican nomination through attrition. Because of Romney’s reluctance to engage his primary opponents on deeply conservative issues, however, his conservatism was called into question. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Newt Gingrich lambasted Romney as a Massachusetts Moderate and sought to “draw a clear contrast between conservatism and the Romney record.” Rick Santorum argued that Romney wasn’t deserving of the Republican nomination because he isn’t conservative enough. And even former Alaska governor turned vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin weighed into the conversation, saying that she was “not convinced” Romney is a conservative.
In response to these attacks, Romney reframed himself as a “severely conservative” former governor, consistently emphasizing the following on the campaign trail: “I’m pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, I believe in the Second Amendment. As governor, I balanced the budget, every year in office. Put in place a $2 million rainy-day fund. Cut taxes 19 times.” Some of these statements represented a marked shift from Romney’s previous remarks; particularly with regard to abortion, which he once believed should be “safe and legal.” And when fears surfaced that Romney might be moving too far to the right for the general electorate, his campaign was quick to emphasize the ease with which Romney could alter his positions on a long list of issues. After the primary campaign, Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom argued, “everything changes,” adding: “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”
Divining what Mitt Romney believes has been a central struggle of the 2012 General Election. Rather than being the product of a discordant campaign, however, Romney’s obfuscation has been a critical plank of his campaign strategy. After Romney’s convention speech, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight noted that “Mr. Romney’s strategy was pretty clear. He was seeking to fulfill the role of the generic Republican – a safe and unobjectionable alternative with a nice family and a nice career – and whose main credential is that he is not Mr. Obama, the Democratic president with tepid approval ratings and middling economic numbers.” While this strategy seems facially preposterous, it actually has some foundation. In 2011, Gallup noted that registered voters preferred the “Republican Party’s candidate for president” than President Barack Obama, 47 percent to 39 percent. In other words, Barack Obama loses the fight to Generic Republican.
Fast forward to Wednesday, October 3, 2012, the night of the first presidential debate. As noted in the previous post (The Importance, or Lack Thereof, of Presidential Debates), although the news media seek to portray televised presidential debates as national events of great importance, they often have little meaningful impact on the presidential race. The conventional wisdom was that Romney needed a win; following the debate, the consensus among reporters and media outlets was that Romney delivered. The polls concurred with this assessment: according to a CNN/ORC International survey, 67 percent of debate watchers said Romney was victorious while only 25 percent said Obama had won.
The manner in which Romney “won” the debate, however, is illuminating. Romney disavowed core principles of his campaign, ideas and proposals that he had been campaigning on for months, leading to charges from the Obama campaign that Romney won the debate because he lied. “[W]hen the dust settles,” a 4:15 a.m. MT press released stated, “Romney’s dozen flat-out falsehoods will be the only thing remaining from his debate performance – because avoiding the truth has been the very definition of Romney’s candidacy, and he can’t escape that with a single smooth appearance.”
The Obama campaign was complaining about many things, but perhaps none more than Romney’s insistence that “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut” (see the full transcript of the debate here). In February, during a debate in the Republican primary, Romney proclaimed: “We’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20 percent, including the top 1 percent.” This 20 percent across-the-board reduction, according to the Tax Policy Center (TPC), would reduce federal revenue $480 billion in 2015 and indeed amount to $5 trillion over the decade. Despite cries from conservatives that the TPC is a “liberal” group, it should be noted that when TPC analyzed Gov. Rick Perry’s tax plan during the GOP primaries, the Romney campaign called it an “objective, third party analysis.”
The accuracy of Romney’s assertion depends entirely on whether you believe that Romney can offset his rate cuts by closing loopholes and reducing reductions. FactCheck.org dinged Obama with a “not true” for repeating TPCs findings simply because “Romney proposes to offset his rate cuts and promises he won’t add to the deficit.” Even FactCheck.org acknowledged, however, that Romney’s proposal is “The Impossible Plan.” There are simply not enough tax breaks to take away from the rich to pay for it. Or, as Talking Points Memo put it, “Romney says he’ll find a unicorn. And if you take him at his word, the verdict is false.” Similarly, the New Republic lambasted Romney’s tax promises as being “so vague that the statements could mean absolutely nothing.”
Five years ago, Mitt Romney was staring down a bitter defeat. He was losing badly coming into the last leg of the final event, an amateur triathlon, in the Romney Family Olympics. And heading into the finish, Mitt’s 23-year-old daughter-in-law, Mary Romney, who had given birth to her second child eight weeks earlier, was gaining ground on him. Mitt, reaching deep into his reserves of strength, lunged across the finish line ahead of Mary, leaving him exhausted and relegated to the lawn chair for the rest of the day. It was after that experience that Mitt expanded the games to give himself a better shot.
On the one hand, the Romney Family Olympics lessen Romney’s “relatability” problem. Stories from the Games paints the portrait of Romney as an ultra-competitive, all-American family man. But, on the other hand, they also reveal an illuminating fact about Romney that has impacted the way in which he has managed both his professional career in private equity and his presidential campaigns: Romney will do whatever it takes to win.
With regard to the 2012 presidential election, this has required Romney to engage in a game of charades. To obtain the presidency, Romney is playing a character in a long-running movie, one that has shown a willingness to transform himself depending on the audience. If you are a supporter of Romney at a $50,000 per-plate fundraiser during a heated Republican primary, you will be told one thing in an effort to boost Romney’s conservative credentials. But if you are an undecided voter watching the presidential debates, you will be told something quite different.
Throughout the campaign, this proclivity has produced what appear to be innumerable “gaffes.” These “gaffes,” however, are not merely mistakes. Rather, they are representative of a deeper, more fundamental, actuality. As Mark Twain once remarked, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Romney has taken a simple approach to this election: win by any means necessary. He will say anything to achieve this goal, regardless of whether or not he actually believes it. And while politicians are not known for their penchant for telling the “hard truths,” if Romney’s performance is successful, it will be truly stunning.