Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot
He peppered them with questions. To an energy producer: “High sulfur or low sulfur content? And how clean is the system you’re able to employ? Do you have a trading system for SOx and NOx?” To a feedlot operator, Romney inquired about the number of heads of cattle and their intended purpose. And while discussing renewable energy with an ethanol C.E.O., the candidate offered up a modest smile and said: “When I was a boy, the kind of numbers — help me with my memory on this — but an acre could produce 60 bushels of corn. And now it’s about 160 bushels of corn, is that about right?”
“Governor, I’m sorry, but we’re running a little short on time,” Romney’s advance director, Will Ritter, cut in a few minutes later.
“O.K., I’ll be a little bit shorter,” the candidate promised. Nonetheless, all of this unscripted, free-enterprise small talk cohered into a larger point — indeed, it was the point, the message, the Tao of Mitt, if you will — and in case anyone failed to see it, the candidate spelled it out during the round-table discussion: “I can only tell you this from spending 25 years in business: I understand business.”
That same day, the local organizers had planned press availability with Romney. But the national campaign nixed the idea — just as it had long dispensed with the freewheeling “Ask Mitt Anything” Q. and A.’s, some 200 of which the candidate subjected himself to during the 2008 campaign. “You can’t control the message,” one of Romney’s senior advisers later explained to me. “But at a business round table, it’s much more easily controlled because you’re having a group of businessmen, and you’re talking about the economy and the challenges that they may be facing, and Mitt is very conversant on those points.”
Similarly, this adviser went on, Romney’s five sons, who were ubiquitous features of the previous campaign — and whose affluent preppiness was the subject of much snarky commentary — would be far less present this time around. “The campaign’s interest and focus is on the economy message, not so much on showing the entire dimension of the family.” He went on, “It just doesn’t fit.” After the eldest Romney boy, Tagg, was teasingly invited in a Twitter post to “tailgate for the next debate” by the daughters of Jon Huntsman, “he wanted to Tweet with the Huntsman girls,” said the adviser. Smiling faintly, the adviser added, “No Tweeting.”
Mitt Romney’s campaign has decided upon a rather novel approach to winning the presidency. It has taken a smart and highly qualified but largely colorless candidate and made him exquisitely one-dimensional: All-Business Man, the world’s most boring superhero. In the recent past, aspirants and their running mates have struggled to clear the regular-guy bar. Dan Quayle lacked a sense of struggle; Michael Dukakis couldn’t emote even when asked what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered; George H. W. Bush seemed befuddled by a grocery-store scanner; John Kerry was a windsurfer; John McCain couldn’t count all of his houses.
Romney, a socially awkward Mormon with squishy conservative credentials and a reported worth in the range of $190 million to $250 million, is betting that in 2012, recession-weary voters want a fixer, not a B.F.F. As the Romney campaign’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, told me: “The economy is overwhelmingly the issue. Our whole campaign is premised on the idea that this is a referendum on Obama, the economy is a disaster and Obama is uniquely blocked from being able to talk about jobs.”
Meanwhile, Romney has been the race’s putative front-runner from the outset. It’s true that a low ceiling of support has loomed over him for months, while Republicans have anxiously searched all corners for an alternative. Nonetheless, his challengers appear to be self-immolating one by one and have done little to warrant his attention. Whenever Romney does step out of his tightly circumscribed “I understand business” framework, it is to appeal to conservatives by attacking the president’s dubious appreciation of capitalism — saying that Obama “fails to understand America,” that he regards the United States as “just another country with a flag” and that he takes his inspiration “from the socialist Democrats of Europe.”
Robert Draper is a contributing writer for the magazine. He is working on a book about the House of Representatives.
Editor: Ilena Silverman