Mitt Romney: A Candidate With a Serious Wimp Problem

Romney: The Wimp Factor

It should be the easiest thing in the world for a presidential nominee: a trip to England. The mother country, the shared tongue, our firmest ally. And it should have been easiest of all last week, happening as it did on the eve of the Olympics. Just praise everything you see. Limn London as one of the world's great cities, invoke the spirit of the British people that lives on from the glorious days of the blitz. Praise the bangers and mash and the pasties if you have to. Nothing to it.

And yet, Mitt Romney managed to alienate just about every living Briton. He didn't merely criticize the organizers or bureaucrats—he questioned the people of Britain themselves: "Do [the people] come together and celebrate the Olympic moment?" He wasn't sure. The Sun even went so far as to dub him "Mitt the Twit."

It was an astonishing faux pas—one of many packed into his brief visit. And it makes one wonder: if elected, Romney is going to have to work hand-in-glove with Prime Minister David Cameron and other world leaders on the ongoing global financial crisis and other issues. What unintended offenses are going to tumble out of his mouth then, when he's representing our nation on the world stage?

The episode highlights what's really wrong with Romney. He's kind of lame, and he's really ... annoying. He keeps saying these ... things, these incredibly off-key things. Then he apologizes immediately—with all the sincerity of a hostage. Or maybe he doesn't: sometimes he whines about the subsequent attacks on him. But the one thing he never does? Man up, double down, take his lumps.

In 1987, this magazine created a famous hubbub by labeling George H.W. Bush a "wimp" on its cover. "The Wimp Factor." Huge stir. And not entirely fair—the guy had been an aviator in the war, the big war, the good war, and he was even shot down out over the Pacific, cockpit drenched in smoke and fumes, at an age (20) when in most states he couldn't even legally drink a beer. In hindsight, Poppy looks like Dirty Harry Callahan compared with Romney, who spent his war (Vietnam) in—ready?—Paris. Where he learned ... French. Up to his eyeballs in deferments. Where Reagan saddled up a horse with the masculine name of El Alamein, Mitt saddles up something called Rafalca—except that he doesn't even really do that, his wife does (dressage). And speaking of Ann—did you notice that she was the one driving the Jet Ski on their recent vacation, while Mitt rode on the back, hanging on, as Paul Begala put it to me last week, "like a helpless papoose"?

Another point of comparison with Bush Sr. is instructive. Newsweek identified Bush's wimp problem as being laced into his adherence to an old, upper-class, WASP civic code: the idea that one does not put oneself inordinately forward. At his boarding school, students literally received grades in a category titled "Claims no more than his fair share of time and attention." Somehow, in 1987, this magazine decided that high marks in that realm constituted a demerit. But a quarter century, one global financial meltdown, several concentrations of wealth, and many magnitudes of culture-coarsening later, that sounds like a real plus. He was magnanimous, and his magnanimity was grounded in a code of honor.

Romney was raised in that same code—his father was the epitome of the civic-minded millionaire (except, of course, the Romneys were not WASPs). But as Mitt was making his fortune, those old values were being ground to dust by new Gordon Gekko values. The clash between those competing value systems exists inside him. There's some of the old—he gives away plenty of money and so on. But the new values surface often enough—his fondness for firing people, the way he made fun of NASCAR fans' ponchos, his reminders to us that his friends are the people who own the teams, and now his putdown of an entire nation, which happens to be our closest ally—to suggest that they won the argument.

A good-looking guy doesn't have to walk around saying, "Hey, look at me!" He knows everyone's looking. And a rich guy doesn't have to remind us he's rich. When he does, something's off. It looks insecure.

Romney is the genuine article: a true wimp. Oh, there are some ways in which he's not—a wimp lets himself get kicked around, and Romney doesn't exactly do that. He sure didn't during the primaries, when he strafed Rick Perry and carpet-bombed Rick Santorum (but note that they were both weaker than he).

In some respects, he's more weenie than wimp—socially inept; at times awkwardy ingratiating, at other times mocking those "below" him, but almost always getting the situation a little wrong, and never in a sympathetic way. The evidence resonates across too many years to deny. What kind of teenager beats up on the misfit, sissy kid, pinning him down and violently cutting his hair with a pair of school scissors—the incident from Romney's youth that The Washington Post famously reported (and Romney famously didn't really deny) back in May? The behavior extends, through more sedate means, into adulthood. The Salt Lake Olympics remains his greatest triumph, for which he wins deserved praise. But to many of those in the know, Romney placed a heavy asterisk next to his name by attacking the men he replaced on the Olympic Committee, smearing them in his book, even after a court threw out all the corruption charges against them.

And what kind of presidential candidate whines about a few attacks and demands an apology when the going starts to get rough? And tries to sound tough by accusing the president who killed the world's most-wanted villain of appeasement? That's what they call overcompensation, and it's a dead giveaway; it's the "tell." This guy is nervous—terrified—about looking weak. And ironically, being terrified of looking weak makes him look weaker still.

Harvey Mansfield, the Harvard political philosopher, is a godhead to conservatives. He wrote a book while Bush was president called Manliness. It was a self-parodic volume, but conservatives loved it. In 2006 an interviewer asked Mansfield his definition of manliness, and he said: "confidence in a situation of risk."

By this definition, the conservative definition, Romney is a total bust. He's the most risk-averse major politician to come along in ages. He accepted the job at Bain Capital only after wringing out of Bill Bain a promise that, if the venture failed, Mitt would be welcomed back to Bain & Co.—at his old levels of compensation and seniority—and that the press and public would be fed some happy talk about how it had all gone as intended. And why didn't he leave Bain in 1999 to go run the Olympics, as he always said he had, but instead take his now-famous "leave of absence"? To have the option of coming back; to minimize the risk. Even his flip-flopping, his taking of positions all over the map, is a form of risk aversion, being all things to all people, able to placate any audience, never stuck out on a limb unable to satisfy.

There's another conservative yardstick on which Romney comes up short: he's too smart, as in clever or book-smart, to be a real Republican candidate. All those stories about how intensely data-driven he was at Bain, or as governor? Weird. Liberals, men of caution and contemplation, are obsessed with data. Conservative men are supposed to be men of action—they have hunches and play them. In this one sense Romney is just like a Massachusetts liberal. When it's said that conservatives still don't trust the guy, it's not just his past moderate record they distrust, but also this sense of Romney as approaching issues intellectually instead of instinctively, producing the lurking unease that if he got into that Oval Office, Romney might one day look at the evidence and decide that, by Jiminy Cricket, global warming does exist!

Which ties directly to his biggest wimp problem. He still, after five years and two presidential campaigns, has yet to take one real stand on any issue; has yet to adopt one position that troubles his party's hard right. At least Obama praised Ronald Reagan. And he meant it. Romney has tried to praise Bill Clinton, but it was so obviously by way of denouncing Obama that it came off sounding hollow and too clever by half.

The catalog of Romney flip-flops is lengthy and by now famous: abortion rights; support for Planned Parenthood, to which he and his wife once wrote checks, now in his gun sights; Grover Norquist's "no tax increases" pledge, which he admirably refused to sign as a gubernatorial candidate but since 2007 has taken up with gusto; on immigration, where he once supported a path to citizenship; on guns (he supported the Brady Bill in the 1990s); on "don't ask, don't tell"; and, most famously of all, on health care.

These are conventionally explained by the obvious political dichotomy: the moderate positions were adopted when he was seeking votes in Massachusetts, the conservative ones when he went national. That's true as far as it goes.

But there's more going on in this case. All politicians undergo a tuck here and a trim there. Comparatively few turn outright somersaults on big issues, let alone half a dozen or more of them. What gives? Most pols in Romney's position would think: OK, I've got to change some stances, but I'd better keep one or two, just to show I stand for something, and accept the consequences. But not Romney.

Politicians change positions for three main reasons: financial ambition, political ruthlessness, and political cowardice. Romney already has the big money, so that's out. Ruthless? Not really—a ruthless change of position is one designed to please one group of people but equally to piss off another group. Romney's flip-flops are solely about making a group of highly suspicious voters like him. That, folks, is door No. 3.

The Presidential Studs:George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan set the modern standard for chief-executive manliness. Pete Souza / AP (left); Charles Ommanney / Getty Images

Compounding matters, when pressed to the slightest degree about his inconsistencies, he can get nasty and whiny. No one talks anymore about his encounter with Bret Baier of Fox News last December, but it was a Moment. When Baier had the nerve to challenge him on his health-care and immigration views, Romney complained—told Baier his questions were "uncalled for!" Of course it was Fox, which is supposed to be his on-air public-relations firm, so Romney was shocked. But even so, you don't say it. A politician complaining about a journalist just doing his job is ... weenie-ish.

In a similar vein, it was breathtaking, and a meaningful window into his thinking, that he thought denouncing "Obamacare" to the NAACP constituted courage. That was the opposite of courage—an easy shot aimed at people who aren't voting for him anyway. Going to the Southern Baptist Convention and telling them they're all wet about Mormonism? Now that would be courage. Can anyone picture Romney doing that in a million years? The Mormon God will come down from Kolob before that happens.

This is the first presidential campaign of the post-World War II era in which neither candidate is a veteran. With no one having that card to play, the candidates have to nudge the testosterone meter through other means.

Obama is not your stereotypical gunslinger, that's for sure. He came into office as the liberal beau ideal. His opposition to the Iraq War was his great calling card, along with his race. But now look: he's knocking off terrorists at a pace that Cheney would envy. Despite what conservatives believe—that liberals are silent about this because it's a Democratic president doing it—he takes a lot of whacks in the liberal press over this. But his mind is made up. For better or worse, he's not going to be a Jimmy Carter or a Mike Dukakis under any circumstances he can help.

In the Osama bin Laden raid, he made the toughest high-pressure decision a president has made since the Cuban missile crisis. Talk about risk! Harvey Mansfield must have swooned while watching that gripping 60 Minutes segment when Obama and others discussed how it all went down.

What a crazy, and crazily unseeable, irony that would be, if Barack Obama ended up being the guy who turned the Democrats into a tough-guy party again. They've been trying for years, since the post-Vietnam 1970s when these lines began to harden. Clinton was getting there in his second term with the Kosovo business and a wave of foreign-policy successes, but Monica got in the way. Even after that, Clinton came within a few hours of getting bin Laden in August 1998, although at that point, most Americans would have asked, "Who?"

Then came 9/11, and we know all that history. Bush on the pile of rubble with the megaphone—giving him enough tough-guy momentum to coast all the way through the 2004 election. But by 2008, the macho bank had been seriously depleted—starting and not being able to finish two wars will have that effect.

But even so, the Democrats remained totally emasculated. Didn't know what to do. The two other leading presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, spent the pre-2008 years doing everything they could to shore up their macho cred. But it took the most unlikely one of them—antiwar, cerebral, urban, a community organizer; someone who, when he launched his quest for the presidency, may not even have known the difference between a brigade and a battalion—to bring the party back to the Truman-Acheson roots the Republicans tried so hard during the Bush years to replant in their own soil.

Romney will go at Obama hard until the election on Pentagon cuts and security leaks and Obama's alleged apologies for America. Here and there he'll score a point. But here, too, he's just trying too hard. You watch something like his recent VFW speech, and you see that he so desperately wants people to see him and think: "He's like Reagan." Please. You would no more cast Romney as Reagan than you would Pee-wee Herman as James Bond.

Republicans and conservatives seem to know all this: many of them wanted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to jump in. Now, there's a Republican man! Bellicose, sharp-tongued, a gleeful crusher of liberal pieties. Even his girth seems somehow manly. (Maybe it's the way he throws it around.) He's a smart choice to keynote the party's convention—he'll supply the tough-guy shtick the nominee can't.

Every once in a while, a George Will or Bill Kristol will fret in public that Romney just doesn't have the sauce. Donors and GOP honchos, while giving him their full backing because they despise Obama, are well aware that Romney was just the least bad of the party's available candidates—not the sort of man Republicans prefer carrying their standard into battle, and one whose defects, should he lose, could injure the party long into the future, especially on what used to be the GOP's "natural" foreign-policy advantage.

But if Romney is elected? Be nervous. A Republican president sure of his manhood had nothing to prove. Reagan was happy with a jolly little shoot-up in Grenada, and eventually he settled down to the serious work of arms control, consummating historic treaties with Mikhail Gorbachev. But a weenie Republican—look out. He has something to prove, needs to reassert that "natural" advantage. That spells trouble more often than not.

Still, there's a campaign to get through first. At some point, an unexpected event more serious than the Olympics—a scandal, a smear—will put Romney under the interrogation lamp, and he'll need to rise to the occasion. We'll see then if he has it in him. So far, he wants to sneak into the White House through a side door, without having to do any of the difficult and controversial things candidates have to do. Voters want candidates who are harshly tested and emerge from those tests stronger. Romney is desperate above all else to dodge them—and when they have come, he's failed.