Elections, as people on the losing end of them are painfully used to being reminded, are as much about personalities as they are about politics. A candidate can have the most reasonable, sensible policies imaginable, but doesn’t stand a chance of winning office if, as they say, the dogs don’t like the food. Democrats have been all too aware of this fact in my lifetime; Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry, in particular, have played big roles in their own failure to ascend to the Oval Office due to their chronic inability to act like a normal human being when the moment required it.
Republicans, on the other hand, are only just recently getting used to it, and it’s so painful to watch them learn this bitter lesson that one might almost feel sorry for them if they hadn’t spent the last 30 years systematically wrecking the economy. A concatenation of factors, including demographic shifts, an unpredictable media environment, and internal divisions within their own party, has seen them field a number of candidates for national office who give off a stink that they just can’t shake, whether it’s the unmistakable odor of sour blandness or the acrid whiff of crazy. It’s a testament, both to the determination of some people to vote for the Party of Billionaires no matter how limp a candidate they field and the weak trigger fingers of the Democrats, that the race continues to be as tight as it is, because in Mitt Willard Romney, they have finally run a presidential hopeful so desperately unappealing that even he doesn’t seem like he believes in his candidacy.
It’s not that the G.O.P can’t get away with running a plate of cold fish; they’ve done it before, and will probably do it again. Ronald Reagan left behind just enough goodwill that the twitter-pated, spoon-fed nonentity George Herbert Walker Bush was able to take his spot in the big chair; though Art Buchwald described him to a tee as “every woman’s first husband”, Bush had the advantage of running against an even less charismatic possibility in the person of hapless cryogenic robo-candidate Michael Dukakis. John McCain, presented with the biggest gimme in American history when he was placed in competition for presidency of the United States against a black man, only choked so miserably because of the panic move of bringing Sarah Palin on board. She so perfectly reflected the intellect and character of the typical GOP-base values voter — that is to say, she was impenetrably stupid and bereft of even a single worthwhile idea or attitude — that she threw the whole party into a tizzy.
Nor is it particularly the case that the things Mitt Romney is saying are unpalatable to the American people. Most of what he said at the now-notorious Republican fundraiser was typical GOP boilerplate that its candidates at every level have been saying non-stop for decades now: most Americans are lazy mooching bums, poor people don’t pay any taxes, and Democrats only vote the way they do because they just want free handouts from the government. This may be wrong (when I think about people who don’t pay taxes, I don’t think about poor people; I think about people like Mitt Romney.) But it’s not new.
The problem is that nobody wants to hear it right now. With tens of millions of people still out of work, houses being foreclosed at a record pace, and the specter of austerity ominously dangling over our heads, Americans are getting a little sick of hearing the bootstraps speech, especially when it comes from a moronically-grinning near-billionaire who’s never known an uncomfortable moment in his life. But Romney doesn’t know when to shut up, and that, as much as anything in the Republican Party platform, is what’s costing him: he just keeps on telling the same joke and wonders why everyone in the room isn’t laughing anymore. What’s painful about his endless public appearances isn’t that he’s doing anything wrong, at least not on the terms set by contemporary American politics; it’s that he simply cannot fathom why anyone could possibly have a problem with him saying what he’s being saying ever since he was a member of the Green Team Junior Plutocrats Club.
And here is where we get to the true analog for Romney’s presidential campaign. Although his background is similar to that of George W. Bush, he lacks aggressiveness, meanness, and the domineering nature of the addictive personality, Privilege Division. He has the same sense of entitlement, but his lifetime of Mormon conformity left him without the manipulative sneer of a resentful daddy’s boy. No, the politician he most resembles — in background, in character, in personality and behavior, and, it is devoutly to be hoped, in his ultimate fate — is J. Danforth Quayle, the vice-presidential candidate whose callow, oblivious idiocy helped scuttle a second term for W.’s father. Whereas Bush the Younger muscled up to the voters and demanded to be made president, Romney, like Quayle before him, simply expects to be president, because the presidency is the only thing he doesn’t already have.
Of the chronically incurious, perpetually immature Quayle, who, like Romney, had his entire life handed to him and sees no reason to believe that everyone else didn’t have the same advantage, it was memorably said that everyone who ever worked at a McDonald’s worked for a guy like him. So, too, goes the Romney campaign: in everything he does, from explaining his policies to glad-handing with voters to attempting to illustrate that he has a sense of humor that encompasses anything beyond watching a long-haired faggot get his teeth knocked in, he resembles the rarely-seen owner of some big corporation when called upon to fraternize with his low-level employees. His campaign stops look like Christmas parties, where the guy who collects a $5 million annual bonus painfully struggles to find something to say to the guy who drives the forklift; he chuckles as if the instructions for doing so were written on the palm of his hand, and displays Monty-Burnsian levels of common-people camaraderie.
On a certain level, Romney has failed to apprehend that the position for which he is vying is not owner of the American government. The Republican Party is inordinately fond of the ‘president as CEO of America, Inc.’ metaphor, but what they fail to understand is that the vast majority of people hate their bosses, especially when times are hard and they’re frightened to death they might get canned. If the 47% number illuminates anything about this race, it’s that Mitt Romney doesn’t really see his job as being leader of the American people. He sees himself as settling into another corporate job, in which it’s his responsibility to shut down another unproductive company and shift its revenues into the right pockets. Of course, this is an intrinsic difference between the liberal and conservative views of governance, but it’s also an illustration of why Romney is floundering so spectacularly. Like Quayle, he hasn’t got the stomach to govern; like most bosses, he hates having to explain himself, and is alternately irritated and bewildered when people ask him questions about what he plans to do about this or that issue. When speaking to the press, he seems downright harried; he’s tired of pretending to have something in common with the sort of people he’d otherwise pay someone to keep far away from him, he’s resentful of the fact he has to work to get something he clearly believes he deserves; and he wants to be on a golf course somewhere in the company of people he can barely distinguish from himself.
Six weeks is an eternity in politics, and anything can happen, especially in a climate as charged and a media environment as reactive as the one in which we currently reside. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — the supervisor to his CEO, the foreman to his majority shareholder, the floor-walking snitch to his above-it-all corner officeholder — don’t really need to run on policy or ideology; there can hardly be anyone in the country who doesn’t know where they stand in that regard. But they do need to convince the country that they aren’t the oblivious, entitled swells they appear to be every time they open their mouths. They need to stop acting like it hurts their feelings every time someone asks them why they deserve to run the country, and they need to at least pretend like they have an interest in the government that stretches beyond estimating how much they can make by selling it for scrap. If they can’t do that, they’ll continue to come across as the least appealing team-up since America really got to know Dan Quayle, and their campaign will continue to seem like a request for Americans to vote for the guys who are going to hand them their pink slips.