Jonathan Chait

Mitt Romney As Arch-Ironist

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A couple years ago I wrote a column explaining why I actually like Mitt Romney despite (indeed, because of) his transparent fakery. But David Frum has now made basically the same case in brilliant fashion:

I sometimes imagine that Romney approaches politics in the same spirit that the CEO of Darden Restaurants approaches cuisine. Darden owns Olive Garden, Longhorn steakhouses, and Red Lobster among other chains. Now suppose that Darden’s data show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining. Suppose they convert some of their Longhorn outlets to Olive Gardens. Is that “flip-flopping”? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?

Likewise, the “pro-choice” concept met public demand so long as Romney Inc. was a Boston-based senatorship and governorship-seeking enterprise. But now Romney Inc. is expanding to a national brand, with important new growth opportunities in Iowa and South Carolina. A new concept is accordingly required to serve these new markets. Again: this is not flip-flopping. It is customer service.

You may say: But what does Romney think on the inside? Which of his positions is the “real” Romney? I’d answer that question with another question. Suppose an Olive Garden customer returns to the kitchen a plate of fettuccine alfredo, complaining the pasta is overcooked. What should the manager do? Say “I disagree”? Explain that it’s a core conviction to cook pasta to a certain specified number of minutes and seconds, and if the customer doesn’t like it, she’s welcome to take her patronage elsewhere? No! It doesn’t matter what the manager “really” thinks. What matters is satisfying each and every customer who walks through the door to the very best of the manager’s ability.

Jonathan Cohn, Matthew Ygelsias and Ezra Klein all raise sensible objections, all missing the point (I think) that Frum is arguing at least partially tongue-in-cheek.

My affection for Romney is rooted in the fact that his efforts to woo conservatives reveal a genuine contempt to the constituency he is trying to placate. He does not look like Bob Dole pretending to be a hard-core conservative. He looks like Tim Robbins pretending to be a hard-core conservative:

Last year, The Boston Globe obtained his campaign strategy document laying out what it called "Primal Code for Brand Romney." "Primal" is a perfect description for Romney's view of the GOP base. He approaches conservatism not as a respectable ideology but as a series of (in Lionel Trilling's famous phrase) irritable mental gestures. The strategy memo suggests he drive home the message "Hillary = France." Romney has promised to "double Guantanamo" and demanded that Mike Huckabee apologize for criticizing President Bush's foreign policy. This is like a Hollywood parody of a right-wing Republican--think "Bob Roberts," or Tom Cruise's character in Lions for Lambs--but more clever.

If Romney's public sentiments were more intelligent than this, I'd fear he actually believed it. Giuliani's conservatism, to offer up one contrast, is intelligent enough for me to think he genuinely buys into it but still dumb enough for me to fear for the future of our country if he manages to win the election. The mindless tribalism of Romney's pandering is paradoxically reassuring. The form his pandering takes is a measure of the contempt in which he holds the electorate in general and Bush-era Republicans in particular.

Sadly, I think Romney has virtually no chance to win the nomination. He is trapped in the position of both desperately needing to repudiate his signature achievement and being unable to risk another flip-flop. It's a real loss for American politics, and irony.

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