What Drives Mitt Romney?
Mitt Romney’s performance earlier this week was every bit as aggressive as his demeanor in the first presidential debate—something that was a big turn-off for me and many others. But Tuesday night, Romney outdid himself in two other ways. First, he displayed a kind of manic rudeness. When Obama thought that the governor had asked him a question, Romney snapped: “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”
Excuse me? That was the President of the United States you just barked at, not just your political rival.
Second, Romney displayed a surprising breach of loyalty. Apparently, the former Massachusetts governor wants the presidency so badly he was prepared to throw George W. Bush under the bus. In an answer to a citizen’s question for Romney on how he would differentiate himself from the former president, the GOP candidate cited several things. The most important of them was the Bush administration’s high budget deficits.
“President Bush and I are different people, and these are different times,” he said. “And that’s why my five-point plan is so different than what he [Bush] would have done… I’m going to get us to a balanced budget. President Bush didn’t. President Obama was right. He said that that was outrageous to have deficits as high as half a trillion dollars under the Bush years. He was right…”
Even though Romney went on to criticize Obama for even larger deficits, the GOP candidate fell into a strategic trap: Romney showed that on deficit spending the Republicans have been talking out of both sides of their mouths.
In answering a question about the former president of your own political party, most of us might have expected that any criticism from Romney would, at the very least, have come with a qualifier. He could have easily said: “Although the Bush deficits were far too high, the president was dealing with a national emergency—September 11.” This would have been smart since Romney also challenged Bush’s record on China, another sensitive matter.
Romney owes the GOP nomination – in large measure – to the Bush family. As pillars of the current Republican establishment, they still wield enormous power. The Bush family could have demurred and refused to endorse anyone, making it probable that a more extreme candidate would have gotten the nomination and lost the general election. This would have left the window wide open for a Jeb Bush nomination in 2016. After all, if Romney wins this November, Jeb will be sidelined in 2016.
Instead, during the grueling GOP primary fight one Bush after another came forward to support Romney, against the tide of opinion within the party rank and file. In March, former Governor Jeb Bush went first. He was followed a few days later by former President George H.W. Bush. Both of these endorsements came after former First Lady Barbara Bush had already recorded robocalls for the Romney campaign. A few months later in May, President George W. Bush informally mentioned that he is backing Romney. This was noteworthy because the former president had decided to stand back from a formal endorsement, as immediate former presidents often do.
Nope. Romney won’t even let loyalty erect an obstacle on the way to the White House.
Years ago when I was serving as a member of the Republican National Committee Speakers Bureau, we were admonished to obey the 11th Commandment – at the time, an unwritten but widely observed rule in the GOP: “Thou shall not speak ill of other Republicans.” Ronald Reagan had espoused this idea, attributed to California GOP Chairman Gaylord Parkinson, in the hope that his bruising primary fight for the California governorship would not yield haunting one-liners from his GOP opponents, thus jeopardizing his chances of winning the election. He carried this philosophy with him onto the national stage.
Of course, this year Romney and other primary combatants repeatedly violated the Gipper’s wise words over the course of the never-ending primary season.
But perhaps Romney’s ambitious and inelegant answers will now prompt another GOP Commandment—the 12th. “Thou Shall Not Diss a Former Republican President” —or indirectly his powerful family that has publicly endorsed you.
Romney’s debate answers were undoubtedly aimed at undecided voters, but many members of the Republican Party I’ve spoken to in the last two days are incensed by Romney’s handling of the Bush question.
This debate is unlikely to change the contours of the campaign, but it has offered one more glimpse at what drives the man who wants desperately to move into the White House.