When watching Republican presidential frontrunner (it’s safe to start calling him that again) Mitt Romney campaign in the South, I cannot help but think about John Kerry.
It is not because of anything Kerry did or didn’t do during his ultimately unsuccessful 2004 bid for the White House. And it is not because Kerry and Romney share a bunch of common threads. Sure, both are well-heeled men who forged their political careers in Massachusetts, but that’s just about where the similarities end.
I think of John Kerry because I cannot even begin to imagine how badly the traditional media, to say nothing of the GOP, would have obliterated Kerry for the kind of campaign performance Romney has put on display in the South over the past month. Let’s face it—that would have been a sight to see.
Perhaps some would write this off as overly sensitive, but is there any way to look at Romney’s performance last month at Daytona, coupled with this week’s performance campaigning in the Deep South, and not see a particularly obvious strain of anti-Southern elitism? And I am not talking about the faux elitism visited upon Kerry in 2004 (“he windsurfs!” “he looks French!”). This was the real stuff.
Either Mitt Romney is the most socially awkward legitimate presidential candidate in modern history, or he is a snob with contempt for the South. Sorry, there doesn’t appear to be much middle ground in this particular case.
For those unfamiliar, a brief recap of Romney’s greatest hits:
- While visiting Daytona International Speedway for the anticipated (but eventually rain delayed) start of the Daytona 500, Romney attempted to cite common cause with NASCAR fans by pointing out that while he’s not necessarily a fan of the sport, he had some “great friends” that owned some of the teams.
- Once there, he took the distance between himself and the fans a bit further with this amazing moment when meeting with NASCAR fans assembled at the event:
The crowd initially booed Mr. Romney, who occasionally struck a discordant note, as when he approached a group of fans wearing plastic ponchos. “I like those fancy raincoats you bought,” he said. “Really sprung for the big bucks.”
“Really sprung for the big bucks”? Can you imagine a Democratic politician throwing that line out, and still politically surviving?
- Then, when asked about the issue while being
fluffedinterviewed by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Romney actually doubled down:
O’REILLY: You know whenever you make a joke like you did at the NASCAR race and you said you saw some people in these cheap little rain coats and you go way to spend the big bucks. And you know you’re always going to be portrayed as a rich guy who is out of touch with the folks, condescending to the folks. Am I correct? I mean that’s the way you’re going to be portrayed no matter what you do?
ROMNEY: Yes, you’re probably right. I mean, the narrative that the – - that the Obama people want to push and that members of the mainstream media are very anxious to do for them is that anything I do, the joking around and having fun that somehow that fits their narrative.
O’REILLY: Yes, you’re going to be a snob and this, that, and the other thing. So is it worth it for you even to say those things?
ROMNEY: Well you know, it’s hard to imagine all the things they’re going to try and turn into attacks. I mean, that — that’s the first time you’ve — I’ve heard the one you’ve mentioned. Look I have worn a garbage bag for rain gear myself. And we’re out there in the rain. And the rain was getting us soaked. I didn’t — I didn’t have a rain coat myself. I would have liked one of those.
Leaving aside it was the sneering “big bucks” comment that was the issue, and not the ponchos themselves, calling a plastic rain poncho a “garbage bag” was a nice added touch.
- Fresh from Super Tuesday, Romney decided to set expectations low for next week’s Alabama and Mississippi primaries. But to do so by declaring the Deep South a“bit of an away game”? Again, hard not to imagine a press frenzy if a liberal Democrat wrote off a region of the country as “an away game.”
- And then, earlier this week, the grand finale—while campaigning in Pascagoula, Misssissippi, Romney dropped the following bit of awesomeness:
“I’m learning to say ‘y’all’ and I like grits. Strange things are happening to me.”
Y’all. Grits. I think many of us had the same reaction upon hearing that sentence: “you have gotta be shitting me.”
For me, this final vignette is the real facepalm moment of Romney’s Southern strategy. Can you imagine a candidate stumping in front of a Latino audience and saying he is learning to speak Spanish and he’s developed a taste for enchiladas?
Furthermore, can you imagine the press seeing that happen and dismissing it as nothing more than an awkward attempt at humor?
Look, there is little doubt that despite all this, Mitt Romney will do just fine in the South come November, should he finally close the deal and clinch the Republican nomination. He may be a patrician Yankee whose condescension towards the South is palpable, but at least he ain’t Barack Obama. And for Southern voters, particularly white voters in the Deep South, that will probably be enough to put Romney over the top.
That’s not a generalization of Southern whites—it has its roots in history. A cursory look at the exit polls proves this: Barack Obama got 10 percent of the white vote in Alabama, 23 percent in Georgia, 11 percent in Mississippi, and 26 percent in South Carolina. Romney’s performance over the past month, if it is even remembered by November, isn’t likely to be politically fatal.
My beef in all this is not that Romney is getting a pass with Southern Whites for his odd campaign behavior. It is the free pass that he is getting from the press, and in particular his campaign rivals, that is particularly maddening.
One can easily recall the ceaseless attention Barack Obama got in 2008, particularly the “guns and religion” comment that got him blasted not only in the press, but also by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has raised patronizing verbiage regarding the South to practically an art form, and the response for the press is to write it off as momentary awkwardness rather than any pattern of elitism or contempt.
And remember last Fall, when a piece in Politico laid out a potential attack strategy for the opponent in a heads-up battle with Romney:
Obama’s reelection campaign will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama’s advisers in about a dozen interviews, “weird.”
“First, they’ve got to like you, and there’s not a lot to like about Mitt Romney,” said Chicago Democratic consultant Pete Giangreco, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign. “There’s no way to hide this guy and hide his innate phoniness.”
A senior Obama adviser was even more cutting, suggesting that the Republican’s personal awkwardness will turn off voters.
“There’s a weirdness factor with Romney, and it remains to be seen how he wears with the public,” the adviser said.
Within days, Romney advocates, aided and abetted by the press, decided that defining Romney as “weird” was actually a subterranean attack on Romney’s faith.
Why, then, was Romney’s declaration that saying “y’all” and preferring grits meant “something strange” was happening not interpreted as an anti-Southern dig?
It is almost as if reporters can’t bring themselves to believe that a Republican would feel out of his element in the South. That assumption is understandable on first blush—the GOP has become, in many ways, a regional party with its electoral and power base among white Southern voters.
But given the repeated offenses by Romney, the fact that no one has taken him to task in the traditional press for his antics down South is at least mildly surprising.
But what is more surprising is how little we have heard from his opponents on the subject. It is stunning to me that his three GOP primary challengers (two of whom are Southerners themselves!) cannot make hay out of this issue. It’s not like neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Santorum aren’t capable of some shameless demagoguery when the mood strikes them. Why haven’t they blasted Romney for his almost painful inauthenticity (or, described alternately, scathing contempt) for his Southern audiences. I mean, a guy telling every Southern audience how much he is suddenly into grits, for chrissakes? If you can’t work up a decent sense of moral outrage, or at least a modicum of snarky mockery, over material like that, you just have to get out of show business, I am afraid.
But we already knew that Mitt Romney was blessed by the incompetence of his opposition. It has led him to the cusp of a major party nomination, despite a startlingly weak primary campaign performance. But at least he can pay a filing fee, and file the proper number of signatures, so he’s got that going for him.
Another thing he’s got going for him, it seems, is a press corps willing to write off his clear discomfort for consorting with anyone outside of the “1 percent” as quirky awkwardness. If you hear more about Barack Obama’s “elitism” than that of Mitt Romney this Fall, that would seem to be a fairly catastrophic failure by the news media.