February 29, 2012
The longer the Republican presidential contest drags on, the more uncomfortable Mitt Romney seems around blue-collar Americans, and the more antagonistic Rick Santorum seems toward America’s professionals, current and aspiring, and their ideals. This does not portend Republican success in November. Romney’s victories in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday do not alter this dynamic.
Romney’s stabs at seeming a regular guy have provided the most painful moments of his campaign. How to come off as a car buff in Michigan? Mention your wife’s Cadillacs. How to be a good ol’ boy at Daytona? Say you’re friends with some of the race car owners. Not since Richard Nixon has a national political leader appeared so excruciatingly ill at ease with the simplest public encounters.
The roots of Romney’s awkwardness are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps, while going door to door in France in quest of converts to Mormonism, he came to believe that encounters with ordinary folks were an ordeal with which God tests the faithful. Certainly, his career in private equity did nothing to prepare him for conversations with actual workers. A good leveraged-buyout operator — and Romney was one of the best — doesn’t sit down with workers to hear their concerns, lest he end up heeding any interest save those of the bottom line. Whatever the reason, Romney’s encounters with ordinary men and women seem fraught with peril and grow steadily more surreal.
Santorum, by contrast, seems comfortable only with ordinary guys, provided “ordinary” is defined as white, working-class, traditional, patriarchal, borderline theocratic and seething with resentment at everyone except the rich. Santorum is the latest right-wing demagogue who rails at the real and imagined sins of liberal cultural elites (joining Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and Spiro Agnew, to name but a few), but in his zeal to damage Romney in Michigan, he has more effectively damaged himself throughout professional America.