Throughout the Republican presidential primary Mitt Romney has behaved like the typical front-runner: he focuses on President Obama, with a message oriented to the general election, and he doesn’t give many interviews. Whereas an upstart like Michele Bachmann frequently packs four radio interviews into a single day, Romney doesn’t need to maximize his free media. What he does need is to avoid making gaffes like when Herman Cain demonstrated his flimsy grasp of foreign policy by failing to answer a question about Libya.
But on Tuesday night Romney gave an interview to Bret Baier of Fox News. Baier is not Sean Hannity. Rather, he is a journalist, and he asked some tough but fair questions. It did not go well for Romney, who showed weakness on a substantive policy argument and displayed a gratingly patronizing side of his personality. Romney is widely assumed to be by far the Republicans’ strongest potential nominee. Maybe so, but he will need to work a lot on his television persona if he is to beat Obama.
Romney came across as combative and uneasy. He interrupted Baier and sounded haughty when doing so. “You’re wrong Bret,” said Romney to a question about his infamous comment that healthcare reform in Massachusetts should serve as a model for the country as a whole. “The tape out there, continue to read the tape, and the tape goes on to say for each state to look at it.” Romney is saying that he never meant that the federal government should adopt an individual mandate based plan like Massachusetts’, which would, of course, be an endorsement of the Affordable Care Act. Rather he says that he thinks it would be a model for other states to imitate. It’s a legitimate distinction, but Romney shouldn’t act as if it’s so blindingly obvious. After all, he went on to say just a minute later “[Massachusetts’ law] could be a model for the entire States.” He may mean at the state level, but it sure sounds like he’s talking about the federal government.
He also sounds rather obnoxious when sighing at a question he thinks his interviewer should know the answer to, such as Baier’s inquiry as to whether Romney still maintains that his healthcare reform was right for Massachusetts: “I don’t how many hundred of times I’ve said this too, this is an unusual interview, all right, let’s do it again.” In fairness to Romney, he has in fact said he thinks he did the right thing repeatedly, and Baier ought to know that he has not repudiated his own legislation. But to the average voter, particularly the average anti-intellectual Republican primary voter, the tone of condescension is unappealing.
Romney’s best cudgel to attack opponents from the right, first Rick Perry and now Gingrich, has been immigration. But Baier exposed that Romney has no actual plan for dealing with the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here. He says he hasn’t changed his position from 2006, when he said they can not really be all deported. Romney says they need to apply for legal status “at the back of the line as opposed to jumping to the front because they’ve come here illegally.” But he refuses to specify whether they will have to go home or can apply from within America. How is that different than Gingrich’s proposal, which Romney attacks as “amnesty”? Isn’t any proposal to allow the undocumented immigrants currently on US soil to apply for residency amnesty? The only position that wouldn’t constitute amnesty would be to say, “you broke the law and you will never be allowed in the US unless you’re in jail for your crime.” That sounds nice to law and order types in practice, but no one running for president has actually proposed to imprison or deport 11 million people who came here to work and have broken no other laws. As Gingrich points out, to do so would be inhumane. As Romney pointed out a few years ago, it’s also impractical. Even Bachmann, who has also criticized Gingrich for his stance on immigration, has never actually said what she would do about the people already here. If Bachmann were a serious contender for the nomination, that might pose a problem for her. It certainly is a problem for Romney.
Perhaps Romney’s one genuinely clever answer was at the beginning of the interview, when Baier asked about the New Hampshire Union Leader’s endorsement of Gingrich, which included a few unsubtle swipes at Romney. “You know, the Union Leaders have not always been happy with me so I can’t be terribly surprised,” he chuckled. Did Romney incorrectly pluralize the newspaper’s name on purpose, as a way of creating the false impression among viewers outside New Hampshire that he was talking about actual union leaders as opposed to a right-wing publication? Romney isn’t capable of being that dishonest, is he?