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”?
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....
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.
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.
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.