With Mitt Romney still hanging in there as the likely Republican candidate to challenge President Obama in the fall, the former Governor of Massachusetts is obviously failing to set the GOP on fire. But after his uninspiring victories on Super Tuesday, Romney’s inability to motivate the Republican rank-and-file is threatening to catch up with him as his challengers stubbornly refuse to drop out of the race as he calls for them to unite behind his cause.
For Romney, the situation must be beyond frustrating. Four years after losing out on the Republican nomination to John McCain, he must have looked at his rivals and been confident of heading up the ticket to face President Obama in the November. But his inability to connect with the ordinary voter and unwillingness to pander too far to the conservative factions of the GOP (revised positions on abortion aside), has set him apart from his fellow challengers – and not always in a helpful way.
Over the past few months, Romeny’s bid for the Presidential nomination has survived challenges from a succession of comparatively more conservative candidates. Despite his own difficulties in securing the moderate vote four years ago, each challenger has taken their turn to rise up the media agenda and become the anointed right-wing front-runner in the race. But so far, from Herman Cain to the apparently even less-able candidate of Rick Perry, they have been unable to maintain a sustained challenge.
While – after an indecisive outcome to Super Tuesday – Rick Santorum and Newt “I am the Tortoise” Gingrich insist they are still credible alternatives in the marathon for the nomination, Romney remains, for many, the best of a bad bunch. But the fact remains that the Republican Party is still not convinced and continues to shop around, including outside the declared field, if recent reports are to be believed. And though Romney has made some high-profile gaffes – from attempting to connect with Floridian jobseekers by telling them “I’m also unemployed” to claiming that his campaign is “not concerned about the very poor” – he has still made fewer, and lesser, political missteps than most of his rivals. While he may not have inspired he has not imploded, as Perry, Cain, et al have done (often in spectacular fashion) along the way.
Republican candidates are still, to some extent, reeling from the legacy of characterful candidates like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin who proved that strong personalities do not always win friends and influence people. And while Romney is working hard to distinguish himself from President Obama (and his rivals for the nomination are keen to associate the two men) he perhaps has more in common with the sitting President than recent GOP nominees. Neither Romney nor Obama can connect with the ‘average American’ like the previous President of each party managed to do. But while Bush Jr and Clinton used their strong, and extroverted, characters to help their political cause, neither President Obama (despite his charismatic oratory style) nor a potential future President Romney has the characterful reputation of their predecessors. They have campaigned less on the idea that the ordinary voter would chose to go for a drink with them, playing up their respective experiences, on the ground and in the boardroom instead.
This, though, is perhaps unsurprising. The parties’ shift to arguably “safer” candidates could be nothing more than a manifestation of the lessons they have learned over the past two decades. In the end, both Clinton and Bush ultimately suffered for their extroversion; Clinton’s character flaws led to his almost impeachment while Bush eventually became one of the least popular presidents in American history. Today, Obama and Romney both aim to appeal to voters as good caretakers of the country rather than everyone’s best friend.
And though we blame Obama and Romney for their lack of emotional intelligence, perhaps it is voter demand that has caused this realignment. A recent world-wide trend has seen many countries turn to technocrats to lead their nations rather than selecting character politicians as custodians of their government and its interests. Because while Gingrich and Santorum may be able to use rhetorical tools, partisan pledges and dog-whistle tactics to mobilize sympathetic groups to back their causes, are either of them aiming to lead a country in which most Americans would like to live? Romney may not set many Republican pulses racing, but at least he doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of the rest of America as some of his opponents cannot but fail to do.