By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Mitt Romney, the inevitable and unelectable man

Mitt Romney

It’s only another poll, but today’s news from Public Policy Polling that Rick Santorum has jumped out to a 38 percent to 23 percent lead over Mitt Romney prompts me ponder the fate of our former governor.

From the start, Romney’s candidacy has been defined by two dynamics.

On the one hand, there’s little doubt that he is absolutely unacceptable to right-wing Republicans, which is to say the people who actually comprise a majority of activists in the nominating process.

On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time a serious candidate for national office such as Romney was lucky enough to run against such a weak field of competitors. Santorum and Newt Gingrich are scarcely more credible than Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Ron Paul is running for his own purposes, which do not include becoming president. (Frankly, I’m not even sure that was Santorum’s or Gingrich’s goal when they first started running. Gingrich, in particular, mainly seemed interested in selling books and boosting his speaking fees.)

It’s because of my “one hand” that I believed until late last fall that Romney would never win the nomination. It’s because of my “other hand” that I gradually came to believe Romney had to win — and that, in fact, the health of our democracy depended on his keeping genuine loathsome characters such as Gingrich and Santorum as far away from the White House as possible.

After Florida, it looked like it was finally over, and that sullen Republicans would do what they were told. After Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, what will happen next is anyone’s guess. Romney’s craven speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference won’t help him, and his never-ending repositioning on issues has left him with an unappetizing choice between trying to look like he believes in something — anything — or giving in to his urge to tell whatever audience he’s speaking to exactly what he imagines it wants to hear.

If there’s still an authentic Romney underneath all the phony exteriors he’s tried on and discarded, then it is probably someone without a real political orientation — a pragmatic problem-solver, too liberal for Republicans (outside of Massachusetts), too conservative for Democrats, too bloodless and unappealing to be able to turn those qualities into a virtue, the way Ross Perot briefly did a dozen years two decades ago. [Seems like it was just last week!]

I imagine Romney will turn the battleship around and aim the cannons of his Super PAC at Santorum. I’d guess that we’ll be hearing about disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s (as yet unproven) connection to the Republican Frontrunner of the Moment. It may work. And yes, if Romney does somehow manage to stagger to the nomination, he’ll still be a more formidable candidate against President Obama than any other Republican.

But what we’re watching now is a strange and disturbing dynamic, as Romney — someone whose qualifications and experience are impressive, whatever his shortcomings as a candidate — tries to pick his way through the ruins of a once-great political party that has collapsed into a vestigial appendage of the Fox News Channel.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Al Quint

    I still wonder if someone will jump in at the last minute–Mitch Daniels? I seriously doubt Palin will (famous last words, right?)

  2. Ben Starr

    I believe John McCain had a relatively weak field of challengers (including Mitt). This is not just a 2012 problem among the Republicans.

  3. @ Al Quint – People keep on saying stuff like you’ve said, but most don’t realize that it is impossible for anyone else to enter the race, at least insofar as the primaries/caucuses are concerned. Filing deadlines for most states have long since passed. Of course, if this goes to a brokered convention (as I’ve said for some time that it will, and perhaps that’s what you’re thinking) then it’s theoretically possible that someone other than Romney, Paul, Santorum or Gingrich could emerge as the nominee.

    By the way, Dan – Have you noticed the flap concerning the Maine caucuses? Christian Science Monitor and NYT (among others) have noted some rather large and disturbing discrepancies concerning the voting, reporting of totals, and on and on. Any thoughts on it?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Suldog: Had not seen anything on Maine. Will try to go back and look.

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