Article — From the November 2007 issue

Making Mitt Romney

How to fabricate a conservative

( 2 of 7 )

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe obtained a copy of an internal campaign PowerPoint presentation that outlined Romney’s strengths and weaknesses as he embarked on his presidential bid. One page—entitled “Primal Code for Brand Romney”—explained that Romney should market himself as a foil to such Massachusetts liberals as Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, and also run against such “enemies” as Hollywood, France, and “moral relativism.” Problems identified by the campaign included the perception that Romney would not make a tough wartime leader and the possibility that voters would be spooked by his Mormon religion.

The presentation also acknowledged the problematic view that Romney is a “phony” and a “political opportunist”; but that view is due at least in part to the fact that by any reasonable standard it’s true. The basic contours of his opportunism are by now fairly well known. During Romney’s unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate against Edward Kennedy in 1994, he espoused liberal beliefs on a number of social issues. A politically damaging clip from a campaign debate that year has surfaced, inevitably, on YouTube; it shows Romney posing as an advocate for gays, women, and minorities, and—in perhaps his gravest sacrilege—distancing himself from the political legacy of Ronald Reagan. Romney, Brent Bozell wrote the day after the debate in a piece for UPI, had “demonstrated very clearly . . . that he has more in common with liberal Democrats than he does with Conservatives.”

During the 1994 campaign, Romney’s then (and current) political consultant Charles Manning described Kennedy as a political opportunist on abortion. “He was pro-life before Roe v. Wade and now he’s changed,” Manning said. “Mitt has always been consistent in his pro-choice position.” Manning was citing a twenty-three-year-old letter as evidence that Kennedy was a hypocrite. Campaign foes of the now pro-life Romney don’t need to go back nearly as far to do the same to him. In 2002, a Democratic opposition-research specialist named Jason Stanford was hired by a pro-choice group to research a number of Republican candidates nationwide. In the end, the group decided Romney was too liberal to oppose. “He wasn’t pure on choice, but they thought he was saying the right thing from a liberal, Democratic perspective,” Stanford told me. “And these are 100 percenters—you’re either for us or against us.”

It’s not just Romney’s flexibility on the issues that troubles people. A related problem is the sense that whatever his political convictions may be, he’s not passionate about them. As with the charge of political opportunism, there appears to be some truth to that perception. “Religion, family, and business were his focus,” a person who worked for Romney in a previous campaign told me. “He didn’t have strong opinions on the major issues of the day.” This person, who admires Romney but is not supporting him in his presidential bid, found it frustrating to see him now veer so sharply to the right, particularly on immigration. “He knows better, because he understands business and the economy and trade,” he said. “It’s an easy political position for him to take and a hard one for McCain and the president, who was governor of Texas. My guess is that he thought about the pros and cons, made a calculation, and picked a spot further out on the political spectrum.”

The image of slickness is heightened by Romney’s appearance and persona, which might be genuine but—because he seems like a computer-generated composite—invariably appears contrived. Everything about Romney looks and sounds manufactured: the pretty blonde wife and five Leave It to Beaver sons, the jutting Dick Tracy jaw, the ramrod-straight posture, the “say cheese” smile, and the Reaganesque hair, which even the campaign PowerPoint worried might be too perfect. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Romney had spent several hundred dollars of campaign funds for the ministrations of Hidden Beauty, a California company that describes itself as “a mobile beauty team for hair, makeup and men’s grooming and spa services.” This did not help the governor’s reputation for being a prepackaged candidate, though Stacy Andrews, who owns Hidden Beauty, said he barely needed makeup. “He’s already tan,” she told reporters. “We basically put a drop of foundation on him . . . and we powdered him a little bit.”

Romney’s speeches and public appearances seem particularly vapid. “There is no place that is more important to the future strength of America than the American home,” he said during a South Carolina stop. “The work that goes on within the walls of a home is the most important work that is ever done in America.” And even by the debased standards of contemporary political propaganda, his advertising looks remarkably hokey. Of particular note is a thirteen-minute, faux-cinéma-vérité video, posted on the campaign website, that shows Romney and his family sitting in their living room and having a supposedly spontaneous, unrehearsed conversation about whether Dad should run for president. The conversation took place last Christmas, and even though it was by then obvious to the entire country that he was running, Romney is seen dutifully taking down the pros and cons on a writing pad.

Some voters, understandably, question what Romney truly stands for, if anything. Conservatives in particular seem unconvinced of his sincerity, and that could be fatal in a state like South Carolina. “We may not be the smartest people in the country, but we know how to spot a fake,” a political consultant and popular blogger named Will Folks replied instantly when I asked why Romney had, at least until then, fared poorly in state polls.

was Washington Editor of Harper's Magazine.

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