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.
But the actual course of the ’68 campaign should give the Romney Regiments reason for pause: despite disastrous divisions among the Democrats and a Third Party candidacy (by Alabama Governor George Wallace) that drew literally millions of normally Democratic blue collar votes, Vice President Hubert Humphrey closed the gap dramatically in the campaign’s final weeks and came within a whisker of upsetting the heavily-favored, over-confident Republicans. Nixon drew only 43.4 percent of the popular vote, besting Humphrey by only seven-tenths of one percent.
Mitt Romney can’t rely on a similar path to victory: with the first caucuses and primaries less than three months away there’s now little chance for an internal Democratic challenge to President Obama and no one currently expects a major third party contender like Wallace in ’68 (or Perot in ’92, for that matter) to drain votes away from the incumbent party. This means that Romney (as the presumed nominee) will need far more focused, energetic efforts to overcome his drawbacks than the front-running Nixon deployed in 1968.
These attempts to reinvigorate a solid but unexciting candidacy should concentrate on two names: Herman Cain and Marco Rubio. In fact, those two popular personalities could conceivably provide Governor Romney with the formula for landslide victory in November.
Mr. Cain, currently riding high in preference polls, is already providing Romney with a huge advantage that Nixon never enjoyed: a likeable, credible, energizing primary opponent. In August of 1967, Mitt’s father George Romney made a bumbling declaration to the press that included the infamous claim that he’d been “brainwashed” by generals about the Vietnam War and his once promising campaign collapsed, leaving Nixon without notable rivals in six months of state-by-state primary battles leading up to the Republican Convention in Miami. This situation only added to the perception of Nixon as stiff, remote, cautious and dull. It’s tough to look like winner without dynamic primary opponents you can beat.
Mitt Romney won’t face that problem, thanks to Herman Cain. The Herminator clearly lacks the national organization or campaign war chest to derail the well-oiled, lavishly-funded Romney juggernaut but his folksy, sympathetic personality and compelling debate performances should allow him to continue as a candidate (and as pitch-man for his bestselling book) through the convention in Tampa. Cain also displays little inclination to destroy or discredit his opponents and to thereby compromise the enormous reservoir of goodwill he’s accumulated. He can, in other words, serve Romney’s interests in much the same way Mike Huckabee served John McCain’s interests in the latter stages of the primary campaign of 2008: providing a challenge that allows the frontrunner to sharpen his skills and enhance his stature without damaging the anointed winner with personalized or mean-spirited attacks.
Cain offers another important assist in enabling Romney to avoid Nixonian traps: as the GOP nominee in 1968, Nixon suffered from a maddeningly vague and platitudinous platform (featuring a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War) that made his campaign too easy to disregard or dismiss. The cautious, wary, disciplined Mitt Romney suffers from similar tendencies: so far, few voters can identify bold or dramatic proposals associated with his campaign and certainly nothing that’s captured the public imagination in the style of the Herminator’s “9-9-9” tax plan. Romney doesn’t need to steal or adapt that specific proposal but he does need some clear-cut, comprehensible proposals for sweeping change (well beyond his soporific and overly detailed “59 Point Economic Plan”) to energize his base and enhance his bland image.
And that leads to the second name that Romney must consider to enable his campaign to escape Nixon’s shadow: Marco Rubio, the compellingly charismatic junior Senator from Florida. Nearly all Republican strategists place Rubio at the top of the list as a potential running mate for any Republican nominee in 2012 and the Floridian’s youth, passion, peerless communication skills and Latino ancestry might provide a particularly effective complement for the cool, collected, soothing aura of the Mittster. Whether it’s Rubio, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Herman Cain himself, or some other high-energy shining star in the conservative firmament Romney should select a Vice Presidential nominee who adds pizzazz and electricity to the ticket.
He can’t repeat Nixon’s mistake of choosing a candidate who won’t possibly upstage him: “Tricky Dick” selected a little-known moderate (and recently elected Governor of Maryland) named Spiro Agnew but Agnew’s frequent stumbles during the campaign (calling an Asian-American reporter a “fat Jap,” for instance) hardly aided the GOP cause. Only later did Vice President Agnew generate real excitement: first with his Pat Buchanan-scripted attacks on liberal media, and then later with revelations of outrageous bribe-taking back in Baltimore (featuring thousands in cash in paper bags) that led to his resignation as VEEP.
Mitt Romney stands an excellent chance of strengthening his candidacy by learning lessons from his dad’s long ago nemesis, Richard Nixon, and relishing spirited, good-natured competition with Herman Cain in a long parade of primaries, sharpening his platform with audacious proposals for change, and selecting a well-known running mate who’s electrifying more than reassuring.
These steps can help transform a somewhat drab and methodical (if highly skillful) campaign into a spirited crusade that might ultimately sweep the country, allowing all conservatives to embrace a new version of Nixon’s slogan in ’68, proudly proclaiming: “Romney’s The One!”
A version of this column appeared originally on THE DAILY BEAST.