What is Romney's fatal flaw? (Hint: It's not Mormonism.)

What is Romney's fatal flaw? (Hint: It's not Mormonism.)

What is Romney's fatal flaw? (Hint: It's not Mormonism.)

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 18 2007 7:47 PM

Romney's Achilles' Heel

Can Mitt convince voters he believes anything?

This is the fourth in a series of articles about each presidential candidate's Achilles' heel.

Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Mitt Romney

In the authenticity contest underway among the GOP presidential candidates, Mitt Romney recently boasted he was from "the Republican wing of the Republican party." You won't find that line in Reagan's diaries or the new Barry Goldwater film or even mumbled on the Nixon tapes. Romney was quoting Democrats. Sen. Paul Wellstone popularized the quip when talking about his party, and Howard Dean made it famous in the 2004 Democratic primary campaign. Republicans are allowed to quote only one liberal—John Kennedy—and then only when talking about the benefits of tax cuts. But Romney's appropriation of a legendary claim from the other party was perfect for the former Massachusetts governor who, despite repeatedly asserting that he is the authentic conservative in the race, is viewed by many as neither conservative nor authentic.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a Slate political columnist, the moderator of CBS’s Face the Nation, and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Mitt Romney has often undermined himself during the presidential campaign. Even as he has asserted that he is anti-abortion, he has been dogged by video clips and statements from his 1994 Senate and 2002 gubernatorial campaigns, in which he robustly defended a woman's right to have an abortion. On several other subjects there also seem to be two stories: gun control (for/ against); gays (their champion/ not so much); and even Ronald Reagan himself (distance/ hug). The individual changes of position have caused minor irritation for him. The cumulative effect of them all is the big problem. Taken together, they suggest, as a nonaffiliated veteran of Republican politics put it, "that he has no core."

Mitt Romney's biggest problem was supposed to be his Mormon faith, but the polls don't show it—either in Iowa or nationally. These data could reflect the fact that on sensitive issues such as race and religion, people don't want to give a pollster an answer that makes them sound like a bigot. But if large numbers were truly concerned about Romney's religion, they'd pick someone else when asked who they want to be president, and Romney wouldn't be ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire polls and climbing in South Carolina.

But ask voters about Romney's flip-flops, and they speak out loud. In a recent Des Moines Register poll, likely caucus attendees listed Romney's multiple positions as his biggest liability—on par with Rudy Giuliani's pro-choice stance on abortion. In a Pew Center poll, only 12 percent of respondents thought of Mitt Romney when the word honest was presented to them, the lowest of the four major Republican candidates. A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that only 13 percent of Republicans find Mitt Romney honest and trustworthy, also the lowest of the four major Republican candidates. A CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 15 percent of adults found Mitt Romney to be the most honest—again, the bottom of the field.

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Like all of the big questions that dog the candidates, this problem has been with Romney for a while—even before the presidential race. "He's not pro-choice or anti-choice," said Senate opponent Ted Kennedy in 1994. "He's multiple choice." Romney hasn't been able to dispense with questions about his constancy, and the concerns are only becoming more relevant as Republicans fight over which candidate is a more genuine conservative.

As John Kerry learned painfully in 2004, calling someone a phony works, no matter the topic under discussion. John McCain was the first opponent to raise the issue during a debate with Romney about immigration. "I haven't changed my position on even numbered years or because of the different offices I've been running for," McCain said.  In the last week, McCain has issued the same charge again and again. In a GOP debate last week, Rudy Giuliani ended an exchange with Romney over the line-item veto by saying, "You have to be honest with people, and you can't fool all the people all the time.

Romney's spokesman, Kevin Madden, calls the attacks "childish" and compares McCain and Giuliani to toddlers who "cross their arms, hold their breath, and stamp their feet." But Romney's allies and advisers admit that the charge that he is too calculating and inauthentic is a problem, and one that much of the campaign reinforces. Romney's message appears to change from day to day—from anti-pornography to the threat of jihadism to doing away with the estate tax. The rapid shifts suggest he's rooting around for a message. When he fights with his rivals, it's not over the big issues of the day, but smaller things like sanctuary cities and commuter taxes, issues that seem ginned up only for tactical advantage.

On the stump, Romney's much-discussed stiffness also reinforces the caricature of a calculating automaton. His teeth are on message, and no hair grows without a plan and a briefing. He is a stainless-steel candidate who gets excited about details and policy, but this doesn't play well in the theater of politics. The irony is that his wonkiness is one of his most authentic characteristics. His aides and friends insist the geeky, data-obsessed guy is the authentic Romney. He's not the one you'd like to have a beer with—he doesn't drink, anyway—but he may be the best candidate to share a PowerPoint with.

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The Romney campaign has tried in various ways to combat the flip-flopping charge. First, Romney has embraced his largest reversal and admitted that he has changed his view on abortion. Better to claim a conversion than look shifty. To court the key GOP voting bloc of social conservatives, Romney has offered his 38-year marriage and vast family as proof that he not only supports family values but lives them. He speaks out against pornography and lectures Republicans on maintaining standards. He denounced his former supporter Sen. Larry Craig. He seems to be hoping that if he plays the role of the most conservative, people won't question his qualifications for it.

Calculating vacillators are not usually associated with fortitude, so Romney has also made the word strength his running mate. It's in all his slogans—"Strategy for a Stronger America" and "True Strength for America's Future." His ads go completely overboard on the word. Romney's successful business career and storied turnaround of the Olympics are also deployed as proof that he has conviction and leadership skills inconsistent with the shape-shifting caricature. (Although, as Daniel Gross so cannily pointed out, Romney's flexibility is completely consistent with his acumen as a CEO.)

The best way Romney could combat the idea that he has no core beliefs is by talking about his religion. Aides say he is likely to do so in the coming weeks. He has stayed faithful to Mormonism's complicated dictates throughout his life, including during a grueling two years as a missionary seeking converts in France. As Romney says privately, "We have a high barrier to entry in our religion. You can't drink, smoke, or have premarital sex. Who wants to join that?" This week, Mark DeMoss, president of a Christian public-relations firm, sent a letter to long list of pastors and other faith leaders making this case for Romney. "There aren't casual Mormons," says DeMoss. "It is not an easy religion. His religion is not a show. If it were a show he would have signed up for an easier show."

The problem for Romney is that the more specific he gets about his religion, the more he will be forced to talk about the tenets of his faith and the more the conversation becomes about those tenets. That means explaining his religion and not his policy positions. This could be distracting at least, and at worst might turn off some voters, particularly evangelicals, some of whom consider the religion a cult.

In the end, Romney may survive his authenticity problem because of the opponents he faces.He is a compromised candidate in a compromised field. Fred Thompson's dream candidacy has not materialized, McCain is damaged from his support for immigration reform, and Rudy Giuliani is fundamentally at odds with his party's largest voting bloc and has his own problem with contradictions. So, while Romney hasn't solved his big problem, the men he's running against haven't licked theirs, either.