Today’s New York Times further cements Governor Mitt Romney’s status as 2005’s “It” boy in the 2008 Republican presidential sweepstakes. In a front-page piece headlined “Massachusetts Governor Tries to Accentuate the Conservative,” Pam Belluck essentially describes Romney’s strategy as positioning himself approximately a half-inch to the left of George W. Bush.
The Times article is just the latest evidence that Romney is having considerable success in the media pre-primary that will determine who’s serious and who isn’t. The current issue of the Atlantic Monthly contains a long, effusively positive profile of the governor by former New York Observer media columnist Sridhar Pappu. In June, National Review put Romney on its cover, with writer John Miller exploring whether the governor was conservative enough for Republican primary voters. (The article – available online by subscription only – created a minor sensation because of a quote from Romney political adviser Michael Murphy, who referred to his client as “a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly.” Well, at least Romney is no longer faking it.) Just weeks before that, the Weekly Standard published a cover story by Terry Eastland that explored whether Romney’s Mormon religion would be a help or a hindrance were he to run for president.
Of the three magazine articles, Eastland’s is the most useful, because it explores in some depth the relationship between Mormonism and evangelical Christianity. Eastland dares to say out loud that Mormonism deviates so significantly from traditional Christianity that many observers do not consider Mormons to be Christians – potentially a real drawback among the conservative religious voters who tend to dominate the Republican nominating process. Indeed, Eastland begins by observing that, as recently as 1999, a poll showed that 17 percent of Americans would not vote for a Mormon for president. (Of course, Romney’s Mormonism carries with it certain advantages, too, as this Adam Reilly piece in the Boston Phoenix demonstrates.)
By contrast, Miller’s National Review piece is a once-over-lightly, and Pappu’s borders on hagiography – although it does have the virtue of letting the reader see Romney the way he sees himself, always a useful service and one the media rarely perform.
The Romney rush is unusual for two reasons: it’s at least a year too early, and these media lovefests usually involve Democrats rather than Republicans. Inevitably, some months before everyone gets serious, the press falls in love with a fiscally conservative, socially liberal, straight-talking Democrat with little or no chance of winning – Mo Udall, Bruce Babbitt, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, even Howard Dean before his weird, mid-2003 rise miscast him as some sort of a left-wing rabble-rouser. The only Republican I can think of who got this sort of treatment was John McCain in late 1999 and early 2000. (Media Nation’s 2008 Democratic candidate for the early media massage: Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. Just watch.)
Far from straight talk, Romney’s public pronouncements tend toward bland marketing-speak. Indeed, Romney suggests to Pappu that his substance-free rhetoric is a direct result of what happened to his father, George, whose 1968 presidential campaign went into freefall after he described himself as having undergone a “brainwashing” administered by American military officials during a visit to Vietnam. “It did tell me you have to be very, very careful in your choice of words,” Mitt Romney told Pappu. “The careful selection of words is something I’m more attuned to because Dad fell into that quagmire.”
The early rush of media attention Romney has received is the result of several factors. For one thing, the 2008 presidential campaign is wide open – as wide open as it’s been in many decades. For another, most of the attention on the Democratic side is going to the celebrity pseudo-candidacy of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may or may not run. Then, too, Romney, as a social conservative in liberal Massachusetts and as a Mormon, is exotic, something the media always like. Finally, the Republican field at this point is so fractured that Romney seems plausible.
Romney had better enjoy all the attention while he can. Should he find himself to be a legitimate frontrunner in, say, mid-2007, he’ll be getting far more attention than he is today. Chances are, though, that it won’t be the kind that he’ll frame and put on the wall.