In retrospect, Mitt Romney’s “Ask Mitt Anything” forum in Derry Saturday morning seems like the perfect eulogy for his embattled campaign. He tries so hard to ooze competence, so hard to act likable, that he ends up coming across as neither.
From the moment he takes the stage, it’s easy to see why people like Romney: He’s tall, confident, and tells people exactly what they want to hear. The manner in which he does so is odd, to put it simply. A lot of words have been phased out of ordinary conversation over the years. Two words no one uses in 2008: automobile and clunker. As in, “America is like a broken down automobile clunker.” Nonetheless, Romney presses on, unabated in his quest to sound exactly like the old guy in the Orville Redenbacher commercials.
The oddball rhetoric continues as the discussion turns to the Iowa caucuses. Let’s be clear: There is spin, and then there are downwardly spiraling cyclones of Tolkien-esque fantasy. Romney’s explanation of his defeat in Iowa falls squarely in the latter category.
“I was pleased to come in second because the people I beat included a bunch of household names—John McCain, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani—and I beat ‘em by almost 2-to-1,” he says. While overlooking the fact that the man who ended up beating him handily, Mike Huckabee (aka Mike Huckleberry, aka “that guy standing next to Chuck Norris”) is the antithesis of a household name, or that McCain and Giuliani skipped Iowa, or that after a year of campaigning in the state, Mitt Romney was even more of a household name than all four of them, he further stumbles over himself by latching onto the coattails of, of all people, Barack Obama.
After declaring the caucus results as a vote for change, he then proceeds to sell himself as the real candidate of change. He calls Obama “a well spoken fellow”, but then tries to position himself as the man who can actually effect change. Standing across from a giant sign that says “Washington is broken,” Mitt echoes the sentiment, and then without breaking stride, “I didn’t even see that sign there.” Some guy with a ponytail in the front row shouts out “you’ve got the tools!” to a smattering of applause. What we see is, for the first time, a Republican candidate publicly preparing for a general election against someone other Hillary.
Grabbing the scepter of change allows him an opportunity to distance himself from his primary rival, John McCain, and he does so by attempting to recreate the inner workings of the United State Senate. “They all get together in the Senate cloakroom,” he says, “probably with lobbyists hanging at the elbow.” This is actually not at all possible under Senate rules, but for the sake of argument, I entertain the image.
True to its name, the “ask Mitt anything” event has its shares of softballs and wild pitches. One lady stands up and, upon hearing an answer she liked, essentially tells the Governor he has her vote. Another questioner takes a different approach. Identifying himself as an Irishman living in Massachusetts, he proceeds to combat Romney on his attitude toward illegal immigrants: “Just remember that they’re human. I feel that you’ve turned your back on God’s creatures. Have you no shame?” To his credit, Romney lets him finish his thought, and then supplies a response that no doubt pleases most of the boo-birds in attendance but leaves the questioner unsatisfied. (Afterward, he and Romney will resume their debate for another minute or so, and amicably shake hands.)
A gentleman across the room in a baseball cap and flannel shirt asks if it’s possible to end all trade with China, ostensibly because they hate young children, the working class, senior citizens, oxygen, and America. Mitt’s answer is firm, citing Milton Friedman and the wonders of capitalism. It’s always refreshing to hear a candidate espouse a genuine knowledge of the free market without trying to pander the workers in front of him—but then, John Edwards already does enough of that for both of them.
With time for one last question, the little girl who was sitting next to me is all set to ask her bombshell, whatever it may be. The spotter, holding a cordless microphone motions frantically at Romney, but the Governor is looking in the opposite direction, He solicits a bland question from across the room (about education, I think), but it doesn’t really matter what the answer is. The little girl with the pink camera has just experienced her first political heartbreak.