Romney Runs His Campaign Like Bush Runs His Presidency

Election '08

In his surpassingly disingenuous campaign for president, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has borne only the most superficial resemblance to his dad, George, the late and former governor of Michigan -- much the same chiseled, coldly handsome visage, but starkly different political trajectories. Even if he didn't actually march with Martin Luther King, George Romney was the kind of old-style Republican who strongly backed civil rights, became an opponent of Vietnam, and got axed as Nixon's HUD Secretary for pushing to integrate the suburbs.

Maybe Mitt, like George W. Bush, has a daddy thing -- he's run his campaign, much as Bush has run his presidency, as though the only thing he had to learn from his father were negative lessons. George W. thought his father didn't push hard enough on Iraq and didn't get mean enough to win re-election and was bonkers to raise taxes, and by God, he didn't make those mistakes. Mitt saw his father tarred as a weirdo when he sought the 1968 nomination and -- at a time when he was the favorite for the nomination -- famously told a TV station, "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get," and that he no longer supported the war.

Mitt's campaign has run in the opposite direction: hard right. But until Michigan, his archconservative makeover -- from the fellow who promised to out-gay Teddy Kennedy to the terror-warrior growling about doubling the size of Guantánamo -- hadn't been convincing enough to help him carry a primary. But Romney managed to convert his familiar name into a victory tonight that (at least temporarily) saved his candidacy -- and plunged the already muddled GOP race into a kind of beautiful chaos.

Beautiful, that is, for Democrats.

The oddest thing about Romney's win is that it came in a state in economic crisis -- a place that you'd have expected to overwhelmingly reject a man who made millions as a downsizing consultant. You'd also have expected former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who pushed his economic populism here harder than his Christian Dominionism, to fare better. But there is no explaining Republican voters this year. Not even to themselves.

Huckabee's "Christian Leader" campaign in Iowa, while it worked for the unusually conservative evangelical Republicans there, undoubtedly made most of the independents and evangelical Democrats who might have listened to his economic message in Michigan tune him out for good. And when he starts talking out of the other side of his mouth -- like John Edwards holding forth on "the Two Americas" -- as he did in Michigan, Huckabee clearly confuses a lot of evangelical Republicans as well. He's echoing what many of them have told pollsters for years -- that they're a lot less conservative on economic issues than on the moral wedges -- but it's still a drastically new message, and thus a bit suspicious-sounding. Huckabee's more pragmatic problem in Michigan, of course, was that he couldn't match Romney's months of organizing and advertising, or John McCain's familiarity with the folk he wooed successfully in 2000.

For whatever bizarre alchemy of reasons, Romney passed his do-or-die test in Michigan. On Saturday in South Carolina, Huckabee will be on the hot spot -- he's holding on to a slim lead over McCain there, with Romney not far behind. McCain needed the Michigan win to boost his South Carolina prospects, but Huckabee's once-rocketing campaign has stalled there as everywhere--and Romney has been running a strong third in the polls. If Huckabee gets his must-win in South Carolina, it will set up a critical four-way battle in Florida on January 29. Rudy Giuliani desperately needs the state to position himself for Tsunami Tuesday on February 5, but he's tied in the polls with McCain, with Romney and Huckabee in striking distance.

Democrats might have blown off Michigan, but they're certainly getting some goodies from the state. Romney's win makes it all the more likely that the Republicans' indecision will stretch well beyond February 5 -- all the way to the national convention. It will make terrific theater. And it will ensure that the ultimate Republican nominee -- whoever in the world it might be -- enters the fall campaign with a divided and perplexed party behind him.

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