Last night, upon reading that Romney plans to address the role of religion in America, I wrote:

Those who support Mitt Romney clearly think otherwise, but I tend to think (with Patrick Ruffini) he has had a difficult time communicating his strengths in this campaign. I have little confidence that he would be able to win the general election, but am convinced that if Huckabee gets through the primaries, he will win the nomination handily.

In an extremely insightful piece, Jay Cost clarifies why the decision to give “the speech” demonstrates Romney’s political inexperience:

This is par for the course for the Romney campaign, in my estimation. His candidacy has been the most transparently strategic this cycle. McCain is up? Go after McCain. McCain is down? Leave McCain alone. Thompson enters the race and seems a threat? Take a cheap shot about Law and Order. Thompson fades? Ignore him. Rudy is up? Go after Rudy. Huckabee is up? Go after Huck. You need to win a Republican primary? Make yourself the most socially conservative candidate in the race. And on and on and on.

If somebody asked me which candidate on the Republican side has won just a single election (in a year that his party did very well nationwide) — I would answer Mitt Romney, even knowing nothing about anybody’s biography. This kind of transparency is, to me, a sign of political inexperience. He’s only won one election, and it shows.

Cost goes on to articulate why, for all his virtues, I think Romney can’t win the general election:

Romney’s campaign is, I must say, the least authentic seeming of any on the GOP side. Only John Edwards, the other candidate with but one electoral victory under his belt, matches it in this regard. And even Edwards has been doing better lately. Unlike Kerry-Edwards, the Romney campaign knows how to stay on script. That is not its problem. Its problem is that the script changes are obviously induced by its standing in the polls. There is little subtlety to the Romney campaign. Too much of what it does is obviously strategic. The “flip-flopping” on the Mormon speech is just another example of this general tendency.

I wonder if Republican voters — who are quite worried about Hillary Clinton and her tactical “brilliance” — will punish Romney for this kind of obvious strategery. Can a one-term governor who makes such rookie mistakes be trusted to handle the Clinton “machine?” Imagine what the Clinton campaign would do in response to such a clumsy maneuver in September, 2008!

The need for ‘authenticity’ in politics seems to stem from our media-driven, post-modern political milieu. In this political environment, it seems the President’s role in charting America’s course through shaping public policy has been subsumed under his role in communicating that course–and it’s inevitable conclusion in an earthly paradise–to the electorate. The “Commander in Chief” must be the “Communicator in Chief,” and God spare him if he is not ‘authentic.’

This is clearly distasteful. But in the meantime, it seems foolish to abdicate the political square and hold out for a state of political purity, where voters don’t play identity politics or vote for the most ‘authentic’ candidate. The rules for the race to the White House have already been set, but Mitt Romney seems unaware.

Mitt Romney is clearly an excellent businessman and an effective leader. And such skills make me think he would do a fine job reforming the government and leading the country. But his problems as a politician will probably prevent him from ever getting that chance.

HT:  Ross Douthat, who explains why this is a terrible decision for Romney, and a good one for Huckabee!

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

6 Comments

  1. I have to disagree with you that authenticity is a bad thing in a Presidential candidate. We are electing someone who will lead the free world – character is important. It is doubly so for the President, since he essentially IS the entire executive branch by himself. Authenticity doesn’t necessarily imply character, but oftentimes I think people are looking for an authentic candidate because they are sick of politicians lying to them (an obvious lack of character)*.

    I would argue that character is MORE important than any policy distinctions. After all, who would know that Bush’s term would be characterized by 9/11. It’s impossible to know what a president will have to deal with, so its very important to know that he is someone who will deal with everything virtuously. Policy distinctions, to me, are more important for what they say about character. for instance, abortion is an important issue not only because its terrible policy for us to allow people to destroy human life with the blessing of society, but also because it openly displays the candidates character. (Veith had an excellent article in World on this)

    * I think you can trace this sentiment back to Clinton, who was obviously very good at lying directly to people (“I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinski”). In a lot of ways, I think Clinton was the reason we elected Bush – Bush’s inarticulateness was seen as a virtue because he told you what he believed and didn’t possess the ability to hide his true position.

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  2. Matthew Lee Anderson December 3, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    Brant,

    I don’t mean to suggest that ‘authenticity’ is bad. The underlying premise of Jay Cost’s piece, though, is that Romney is a bad politician because he can’t fake the ‘authenticity’ that the other candidates are able to pull off. When authenticity becomes a requirement, that’s what inevitably happens, and I think that’s a problem.

    I agree with you, however, about character and it’s role in politics. But ‘authenticity’ is a very different qualification.

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  3. “…he can’t fake the ‘authenticity’…”

    I think my brain just exploded.

    Reply

  4. Matthew Lee Anderson December 3, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    Jim,

    To be clear, the line was perfectly intentional. : )

    Reply

  5. In a lot of ways, I think Clinton was the reason we elected Bush – Bush’s inarticulateness was seen as a virtue because he told you what he believed and didn’t possess the ability to hide his true position.

    I think this is very true. I heard complaints about “style over substance” constantly during the 90s, and G.W.Bush was the very anti-Clinton: pure, repetitive, redundant substance, completely un-mediated by style.

    But after seven years of it Republicans have become frustrated by the failure to effectively communicate the message (whatever it may be), which has manifested itself in “slicker” candidates like Romney and Huckabee. Remember how Tony Blair was idolized by Republicans as the uber-politician: Bushian moral resolve coupled with Clintonian facility with language.

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  6. […] As for Hartenburg’s second observation, it is true I did not highlight the distinction between appearance and reality in politics (or life).  I have made similar observations here at Mere-O in the past, particularly in reference to Mitt Romney’s struggles to appear authentic as a candidate. […]

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