I was in the car driving as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney prepared to make his formal announcement that he is running for the presidency of the United States. As is typical with such events, the candidate was running a bit behind schedule and so C-Span Radio replayed phone calls from listeners, broadcast earlier in the day. This being C-Span, of course, some of those callers were a little, how do we say, eccentric.
Then, C-Span returned to New Hampshire as Romney took the stage and addressed the crowd. Instantly, I recognized the promise – and the problem - of his candidacy. If it can be said that some of the other presidential aspirants such as Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann, sound more than a little like one of the crazier callers into C-Span, Romney clearly does not sound like that. He is all sobriety and his lack of pith is remarkable in a politician. But, then the problem became manifest too: Romney may not sound like a C-Span caller, but he does sound like a C-Span host. He is dull: “Macaroni without any salt,” as the Italians say.
I listened to Romney’s speech in its entirety and was especially struck by the way he talked about health care reform without really discussing health care reform. Admittedly, he is in a bit of a bind here seeing as his plan in Massachusetts served, in part, as the inspiration for the dreaded Obamacare. Later in the day, in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Romney tried to explain the central difference between his plan in the Bay State and the President’s plan for the country had not to do with health care, per se, nor did it have to do with insurance markets, nor did it have to do with the individual mandate. For Romney, the key difference is that his was a state-level initiative not a federal one and, as he explained to Hannity, states issue mandates to their citizens all the times: They require children to attend school, they require drivers to get auto insurance, etc.
Romney’s point is a fair one and one of my early criticisms of the Democratic plan to overhaul the health care system (as it emerged – recall, there was never one plan) was that it failed to use the states as laboratories for reform. I had thought that a bi-partisan consensus might have been found, not in the mushy center of policy differences, but by letting the states pursue their own paths to universal coverage with this caveat: If they failed to achieve universal coverage in, say, seven years, then they could join Medicare. So, the Republicans could try whatever market-based models they want at the state level and see what results they get. The Democrats, suspicious of the results a market-based model might yield, would have the prospect of a single-payer system if the GOP state initiatives failed. Democrats are, indeed, well advised to think of crafting their policies in more federalist terms to beat back the charge that they only look to Washington for solutions. Of course, if anyone takes the time to look at the many waivers the HHS is giving to the states as they implement health care reform, there is a lot more federalism in Obamacare than the GOP wants to admit.
So, Romney’s point may be fair, but I doubt it will satisfy the GOP electorate. Sarah Palin, who conveniently crossed into New Hampshire from Massachusetts just as Romney was beginning his speech, said that she did not like the idea of a government mandate at all. It did not matter whether the mandate came from the state government or the federal government. “Don’t Tread on Me,” right?
In addition to being boring, Romney’s other problem is that he looks and sounds like an establishment figure and is running for the nomination of a party that has rekindled a populist anti-establishment fervor. Of all the candidates, Palin has most closely embraced, finessed, and spread the anti-establishment gospel. Indeed, she did something more: She created a narrative in which any of her mistakes get blamed on the “lame stream media” and anytime she finds herself inconveniently confronted with a fact, she denounces inside-the-beltway, establishment thinking for its failure to see the world through her lenses. Romney has created no such anti-establishment narrative and, really, how could he with that hair?
I do not discount Romney’s chances at securing the nomination. Sometimes, other candidates catch fire but they forget that fire not only enlightens, it destroys, and they self-destruct. Think Howard Dean in Iowa in 2004. Think Mike Dukakis in that tank in 1988. Think of Romney’s own father and “brainwashing” in 1968. Romney the son is not likely to make those kinds of gaffes and sometimes the winner is just the last person standing. But, if the economy stays as shaky as it is, the GOP will need someone with a little more star power to go up against President Obama than Gov. Romney.