A ghost from 1968 haunts the campaign of Mitt Romney-- and no it’s not the memory of his father, the late Michigan governor George Romney, who stumbled as a leading GOP contender 43 years ago.
For the younger Romney, the more worrisome blast from the past involves the campaign of Richard Nixon who ultimately won the nomination by default but never managed to inspire real enthusiasm from the party faithful. As with Mitt, nearly all Republicans considered Nixon acceptable as a standard bearer since the former Vice President positioned himself in the safe center of the party. But grass roots activists felt far more excitement about candidates like Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and California Governor Ronald Reagan (on the party’s right) or New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and New York City Mayor John Lindsay (from the party’s moderate, establishment wing).
Nixon carried the taint of a perpetual candidate who had lost high profile races (for President in 1960 and California Governor in 1962) and looked like an ideological chameleon who would assume any policy position or employ any unscrupulous stratagem for the sake of victory. The nickname “Tricky Dick” became inescapably affixed to his public persona.
Rightly or wrongly, skeptics apply similar negatives to Mitt Romney, highlighting the hard-ball tactics he employed in disappointing defeats in the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race (against Ted Kennedy) and the battle for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, while ridiculing his many shifts on major issues ranging from abortion and guns to health care reform and gay rights. In the case of both Nixon and Romney, even their fiercest critics concede formidable intelligence and proven competence but raise fundamental questions about authenticity, offering frequent descriptions of the candidates as “phony,” “plastic” or “empty suits” with limited appeal to a suspicious public.
Of course, Romney enthusiasts dismiss such comparisons as unfair to their favorite: for one thing, Mitt qualifies as the most freakishly photogenic presidential candidate since John Kennedy and he remains preternaturally suave, confident and unflappable even in the most combative situations. Nixon, on the other hand, frequently came across as sweaty, vulnerable and disheveled, while his hyper-emotional insecurity ultimately torpedoed his presidency.
Moreover, even with his famous faults as a candidate Nixon managed to win the White House on his second try and many observers expect Mitt to overcome the reservations of party activists to win a similar victory against a largely discredited Democratic administration.