Sake, a pug, is carried in a backpack by his owner Tate Hausman of Brooklyn during a protest aimed at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in New York, Tuesday Feb. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Ginger Tidwell)
So far Mitt Romney has come off as weak, weird and willing to say anything to be elected. But lately, a new meme has been taking hold. “Mitt is Mean!” read the protest signs outside the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York this week. The “Dogs Against Romney” are howling that Romney once drove his family from Boston to Canada with their Irish setter, Seamus, in a carrier strapped to the roof of the car. (“Dad, gross!” one of his sons cried, as he saw diarrhea sliding down the back window. The mild-mannered Mitt has always insisted, though, that the pooch “enjoyed” the twelve-hour, breezy ride.)
Now a Santorum ad running in Michigan says that Mitt is even meaner to human right-wingers. “Romney and his super PAC have spent a staggering $20 million brutally attacking fellow Republicans,” says a voiceover as a Mitt lookalike (“Rombo”) fires an automatic weapon loaded with mud at a Santorum cardboard cutout. Mitt keeps missing his target, and the mud eventually backfires onto his crisp white shirt.
Mitt does have a mean streak, but it hasn’t always been obvious, if only because he packs it behind a frozen smile and an Auto-Tune laugh. Bland on the outside, roiling on the inside, he’s almost the definition of passive-aggressive: expressing “negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way.” Mitt regularly attacks, lies or infuriates people, all the while professing to be blissfully unaware of any negativity. “I know the Speaker’s angry. I don’t know why,” Romney said patiently as pro-Romney ads carpet-bombed Newt Gingrich in Iowa. The former Massachusetts governor won’t even own up to the normal aggression expected of politicians. On why he didn’t run for a second term, he gets all Eddie Haskell-y, saying, “But that would be about me.”
When asked about Santorum’s humorous ad, Romney laughed, a lot, and said, “My campaign hasn’t run any negative ads against Rick Santorum.” Maybe not. But the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future has been hitting Santorum with a barrage of attack ads that paint him as a big-spending Washington insider. In fact, third-party, Super PAC destruction machines like Restore Our Future—run by the creator of the Willie Horton ad, Larry McCarthy—are perfectly engineered for passive-aggressive pols: they, like Colbert or Romney, can displace the source of aggression from themselves onto someone else and thus can technically deny all responsibility. Why, if he coordinated in any way with Restore Our Future, Mitt says, they’d send him to the “big house” (and not the one he’s enlarging in La Jolla).
Look, it’s hard to run for president, and it’s particularly hard not to come across as phony when you have to appeal to such a wide range of mutually hostile political types. But just about everybody who has followed the 2012 campaign has noticed something about Romney’s personal delivery that makes them think he’s lying, even when he’s not. He’s a flip-flopper, yes, but so are most pols. Just as John McCain’s campaign in 2008 bared his true soul as a reckless gambler with a touchy sense of self-importance, Mitt Romney’s campaign is baring his psyche, and it is sorely divided.
His whole emotional tug-of-war appeared last week in one word, the only word, in fact, that Romney ad-libbed during his speech at CPAC. “I was,” he said, “a severely conservative Republican governor.”
Romney’s press secretary, Andrea Saul, said on CNN that her boss simply meant he was a “strict conservative,” even insisting that strict and severe mean the same thing. Perhaps Romney was thinking of the “strict father” in the linguist George Lakoff’s formulation: while liberals seek “nurturing parent” types in their politicians, Lakoff says, conservatives are drawn to all-powerful, authoritarian daddy figures. The kind, you might say, who dole out severe punishments, like trying to cut women off from contraception and passing legislation that would force women seeking abortions to first receive vaginal ultrasound probes. (Yes, Virginia Republicans, there is an Invasive Government. It exists as certainly as you do.)
Most strict-to-severe conservatives are on to Mitt’s strange locution. “The word ‘severely’ is almost always used colloquially in a pejorative or clinical sense (‘severely unhappy,’ ‘severely handicapped’),” Allahpundit writes, “yet he’s using it here in a boastful way, as if to say that he can be as strident and unreasonable as he thinks the crowd needs him to be to give them comfort on his ideological bona fides as nominee.”
Eric Erickson adds, “It sounds more like a critique of conservatives from the left than that of a conservative himself.”
He’s right: it is a critique of conservatives. “Does Romney Even Like Republicans?” Jonathan Chait asks in New York magazine, writing, “His constant discomfort on the trail is the agony of suppressed contempt.”
Chait chalks it up, as others have, to the defeat of Mitt’s father by right-wingers in his 1968 run for the GOP presidential nomination. When George Romney, then governor of Michigan, said he had supported the Vietnam war because the military had given him a “brainwashing,” he was being honest, courageous even, admitting he’d been had by US propaganda. But the severe conservatives of the day made like he was a Manchurian Candidate, and effectively ended his political career. (Then we got Nixon.) Chait writes, “young Mitt wrote to his father… ‘How can the American public like such muttonheads?’ ”
Mitt couldn’t say that publicly, of course, not if he wanted to avenge his dad’s failed bid for the Republican nomination. But he has been hating on muttonheads and avoiding unequivocal honesty (not to mention courageous stands) on fraught subjects ever since.
For the non-passive, simply aggressive Republican, this is like meeting their straw men and finding that they is us: their probable standard-bearer is a weak, effete elite (like Kerry) who is uncomfortable in his own skin (like Gore) and would look idiotic in a combat helmet (like Dukakis). The only upside to Romney for the right is that, as David Frum found Grover Norquist telling the CPAC crowd, Mitt’s such a weak sister that he’ll do whatever they tell him to do. (“We just need a president to sign this stuff,” Frum quotes Norquist saying. “We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.”)
But maybe Norquist shouldn’t be so cocky. On the off chance that Romney actually wins the presidency, all the anger at right-wingers that he’s been keeping out of sight, riding on top of the car, so to speak, could explode. He does not like sharing with allies who seem to threaten his ego. Remember how, after Romney demolished Gingrich in the final Florida debate, he fired his new debate coach, reportedly because the media was crediting the coach for Romney’s victory?
Apparently, Mitt Romney likes firing people whether they serve him badly or very well.