Mitt Romney: Interviews with Rogers M. Smith and Lou Cannon





11-14-11

Alexander Heffner, a freelance journalist, conducted and curated interviews with leading academics on the top GOP hopefuls. They will appear as part of an ongoing series on HNN.

Rogers M. Smith

Rogers M. Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, is the co-author of Still a House Divided.

When you think about Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, both in 2008, and 2012, what historical parallels to past American election cycles come to mind, if any?

In some respects, Romney as a candidate is like Bob Dole:  a moderate problem-solver at heart, he has to present himself as more sharply conservative than he has been to get nominated.  Dole said, “I’ll be another Ronald Reagan if you want me to be” to GOP leaders, but the party’s strong conservatives never really thought he was one of them, as is true of Romney (though they liked Dole better than Romney).  But in terms of election cycles, I’m afraid this is a bit like the re-election campaign of Grover Cleveland, who had been elected as a Democrat in the midst of a largely Republican era in 1884, who got into electoral trouble for not doing enough to protect the American economy against foreign competition and lost in 1888.  He came back to win in 1892, but then was discredited by a major recession.  Obama may be in Cleveland’s 1888 position, which is an opportunity for Romney.

Do you believe Mitt Romney is at all like his moderate-to-right father, the former governor of Michigan?

Mitt Romney has modeled his life on his father and hero, George Romney—but the two are not the same.  Both made successes in business before entering politics—but George Romney made a manufacturing industry profitable through new products, creating new jobs, Mitt Romney oversaw takeovers and restructurings that often cost jobs.  Both men were moderate governors with real accomplishments, but George Romney did not shift positions when running for president. Mitt Romney has many of his father’s strengths, but is more a politician.

What, to you, is the least observed but most crucial aspect of Romney (the man or the candidate)?

I’m not sure there is a least observed but most crucial aspect, but I do think his is a story of a son trying to be like his father, while also achieving something his father didn’t—the presidency—and ironically, that goal makes him try so hard to succeed that he does not inspire the same trust that he is a man of his word that his father did.

In the context of American history, is Romney being a Mormon significant?  Is it an obstacle you think he will be able to overcome with his base or in a general election contest?

Being a Mormon is significant for getting nominated, as some in the Christian Right base…remain suspicious of them.  But if Romney is able to overcome that and the other negatives he faces in the eyes of GOP primary voters, being a Mormon will not hamper him significantly in the general election.

Romney is often described as the most polished or presidential-looking candidate:  Is he Kennedyesque? Reaganesque?

He is polished and presidential-looking, but has not displayed the charisma of either Kennedy or Reagan.  I would compare him instead to Al Gore (also, a son of a successful politician)—handsome and with the poise of being born to a prominent family, but not with any evident magic with voters.

Lou Cannon

Lou Cannon is an American journalist and the author of President Reagan: The Role Of A Lifetime.

When you think about Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, both in 2008, and 2012, what historical parallels to past American election cycles come to mind, if any?

I don’t think there’s any question he’s a more polished and confident candidate this time.  That’s to be expected for as I’ve written, there is no preparation for running for president except running for president.  Reagan was a poor presidential candidate in 1968, a better but still flawed candidate in 1976, and a terrific candidate in 1980 (and 1984).  George H.W. Bush was a much improved candidate in 1992 because he had learned from 1980.  We tend to forget how important this experience is because Obama was the great exception to it in 2008.  It’s truly amazing what a good candidate he was on his first try at national office.

Do you believe Mitt Romney is at all like his moderate-to-right father, the former governor of Michigan?

I think that Mitt Romney is much like his father in his approach to issues.  But you need to put that in context.  The Republican Party in 2011 is far more conservative on a whole range of issues than the GOP was in 1968.  If you’re talking about presidential candidates of 1968, George Romney, Richard Nixon and even Ronald Reagan were to the left of any of the serious GOP candidates now.  Gov. Reagan, for instance, had in 1967 signed a highly permissive abortion rights bill that would disqualify him as a candidate in today’s GOP universe.

In the context of American history, is Romney being a Mormon significant?  Is it an obstacle you think he will be able to overcome with his base or in a general election contest?

I don’t think Romney’s religion is much of an obstacle.  It’s true that his Mormonism makes him suspect to some of the evangelicals (who are more diverse than is generally reported), but his main problem with both the religious and secular right on social issues is that he’s not very believable on social issues.  I think this is oddly to Romney’s credit.  The reason he’s not believable is that most folks who follow politics or are involved in it recognize that Romney doesn’t care a fig about such issues as abortion and gay marriage.

Romney is often described as the most polished or presidential-looking candidate:  Is he Kennedyesque? Reaganesque?

The lingering doubt about Romney for me, assuming he gets the nomination in a party that is to his right, is whether he will connect with the American people.  I’m not sure…if he has the common touch.  His wealth has very little to do with it; Americans don’t hate rich people, and FDR and JFK were able to be “one of us” even though they really weren’t.  To my ears, Romney still sounds distanced.


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