Early on, before the campaigning begins in earnest, presidential candidates lunch with journalists in order to get acquainted. During one of these lunches, Mitt Romney was talking about the global economy and was asked why he thought some nations grew rich and others didn’t.He said there are at least two schools of thought on this question, one associated with Jared Diamond of U.C.L.A., which emphasizes natural resources, and another associated with the Harvard historian David Landes, which emphasizes culture. Over the next several minutes, he weaved the two theories together, siding a bit more with Landes.
The answer demonstrated an ability to handle contradictory information streams. From it, you could see how Romney had managed to graduate with honors from Harvard Law School, while graduating in the top 5 percent of his class at Harvard Business School. You could see how he managed to start Bain Capital and turn it into a $4 billion firm, doubling the return on investment every single year, on average. You could see how he turned around the Salt Lake City Olympics and passed bipartisan health care reform in Massachusetts.
You could also see a natural theory for his presidential campaign. Romney would be Mr. Execution. He’d be the one who could untangle complex problems. He’d take on the challenges of a rising China and globalization. He’d defuse the ticking time bomb of entitlement debt. As the Democrats went anti-corporate populist, he’d run as a responsible, businesslike steward.
But execution has not been the central theme of the Romney campaign. Instead Romney has highlighted ideology, and molded himself to fit the G.O.P. electorate.
This electorate has changed, even in the past 10 years. As a study by Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates demonstrates, Republicans are more conservative than even a decade ago. Seventy-one percent are self-declared conservatives, compared to 55 percent in 1997. Republicans are much older. Forty-one percent of Republicans are over 55, compared to 28 percent a decade ago.
Republicans are also much less economics-oriented. A decade ago, the party had thriving deficit hawk and supply-side factions. Now the thriving groups, as the study indicates, are organized around issues like immigration, terrorism and stem cell research.
Romney’s campaign conforms to those interests. Its animating idea is that Romney is the true inheritor of the Reagan mantle. This means the central word in his speeches is not “competence,” but “strength” (Giuliani’s turf). Instead of emphasizing data and pragmatism, he emphasizes creed and conviction.
His campaign is oddly short on autobiography. He talks about his family, which is wholesome, but not his accomplishments (too intimidating) or his spiritual journey (too Mormon), or the odd incidents of his life (he was once declared dead after a traffic accident).
His stump speech features generic Republican lines that could be uttered by any candidate at any time, almost as if they were originally designed for someone else and implanted onto him. He recently got into a more-anti-abortion-that-thou fight with Sam Brownback.
Maybe this market-tested, generic approach is working. Romney is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire and tomorrow he is going to win the Iowa straw poll, though probably by less than some think.
Yet the campaign ill-fits the man. His audiences are impressed, but often unfulfilled.
In interviews, Romney talks easily about books by Fareed Zakaria and Rory Stewart, but in public his frame of cultural reference is mostly limited to songs like “Whistle While You Work.” (Why do the Democratic candidates pretend to be smarter than they really are, while the Republicans pretend to be dumber?)
He is also the world’s worst culture warrior. George H. W. Bush’s son could resent the coastal cultural elites, but George Romney’s son just can’t. He’s a 1950s consensus man — he asked his grandkids to call him Ike, after his hero — who is play-acting at being Pat Buchanan. He’s unable to do anger. I asked him recently who he hated, and he dodged the question.
Finally, Romney’s real passions seem sparked by issues he rarely gets to talk about. When I asked him why the G.O.P. is in such bad straits, he said it’s because the party had ceded issues like the environment, education and health care to the Democrats.
Somehow the Romney campaign seems less like an authentic conservative campaign than an outsider’s view of what a conservative campaign should be. It oversimplifies everything, and underexploits the G.O.P.’s vestigial longing for efficient administration. I suspect the Romney campaign would do even better if it let the real Mitt Romney out to play.