National Voices

Friday, Aug 31 2012 11:00 PM

We're getting a square deal in Mitt Romney

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    Michael Gerson

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By MICHAEL GERSON

TAMPA, Fla. -- Candidates often say they write their own speeches, but in the case of Mitt Romney's convention address, it is a claim more plausible than most. It was highly personal, rhetorically unambitious and perfectly imaginable as the product of Romney's iPad.

Assuming this to be the case, we have been handed an interesting artifact. Setting aside aesthetic and partisan judgments, what do his preferred arguments and illustrations reveal about Romney himself?

First, at least stylistically, Romney is the retro candidate. His stories are sentimental, his jokes are corny, his parents are his heroes and his family is aggressively nuclear. There is an admirable defiance about it all. You want authenticity? You got it. In your heart you know he's square.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends -- actually, me -- are squares. But this is a change from recent presidents. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were baby boomer archetypes -- one a story of indiscipline, the other of repentance. In his 2000 convention address, Bush said, "I believe ... in forgiveness, because I needed it." The need itself was humanizing and typical of his times.

Romney, in contrast, inhabits the world before Mrs. Robinson. Some deny it ever existed. Romney proves them wrong. This is not nostalgia; it is a lifestyle choice. Some on the cultural left have little tolerance for this particular alternative lifestyle. But millions of Americans, including many Mormons and evangelicals, practice it without shame. It may even help explain Romney's strong appeal to seniors -- a group he leads by double digits, for example, in Florida. Former Gov. Jeb Bush hypothesizes that cultural affinity may be a "secret weapon" in Romney's outreach to the elderly. What's not to like about an upstanding, earnest man prone to reciting "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" in public?

In this case, anachronism is also a kind of armor. No man so grounded, so stable, so religious, so endearingly square can also be the heartless, lawless villain of President Obama's hyperbolic negative ads.

A second self-revelation contained in Romney's speech: He is not really ideological. He did not engage a debate on the role of government, or America's place in the world, or the future of entitlements. He proclaimed policies instead of arguing for them. He offered five points instead of first principles.

Romney's policy instincts, particularly on the economy, are broadly conservative -- a general preference for free markets over planning. But he is not a cause politician, driven to inspire or convert. Problems, in Romney's presentation, require data, analysis and decisions, not ideological abstraction. What businessman makes management decisions by reading Hayek? And Romney views himself, above all, as a businessman. In his speech, he purposely deflated Republican ideological ambitions. Let the word go forth: "My promise is to help you and your family." And he made a virtue of this modesty by comparing it to Obama's intergalactic ambitions of four years ago.

This approach has limitations. It makes it harder for Romney to explain how and why his policies would actually work. Ronald Reagan, for example, offered theories about the causes of inflation, the effect of lowering marginal tax rates, the importance of stable monetary policy. If you accepted his worldview, you accepted his policies. Romney's proposals can seem like dots in search of a crayon.

But there are advantages as well. It is harder to attack Romney as an ideologue when he doesn't have a particularly vivid ideology. In his convention speech, he managed to distance himself from the worst excesses and hardest edges of his party -- from Ron Paul to Todd Akin -- without picking any direct fights with the GOP base. Instead of advancing a more moderate ideology, he dismissed the importance of ideology in mastering current challenges. This can only be reassuring to middle-ground voters, distrustful of ideological fevers on both sides.

Romney has often been dinged for lacking authenticity. Whatever its faults, his convention speech was relentlessly authentic. Romney is a solid, sentimental, not particularly ideological, highly respected businessman. This is not the normal profile of a transformative leader. But in a country where a little public competence and responsibility are distant dreams, it is probably enough.

Email Michael Gerson of The Washington Post at michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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