Romney Flounders in Fishtown

Romney Flounders in Fishtown February 17, 2012

What’s wrong with the Romney campaign?  Even amongst its supporters, it’s a common question.  Romney’s Boston headquarters ran a famously tight ship through most of the campaign thus far, but now that ship is listing.  If it does not plot a new course, it will founder on the shoals of a Republican populism that refuses to vote for someone who does not inspire, and wants a movement and not just a man.

The Romney camp is presently suffering a perfect storm of electoral challenges.

  1. They had staked their argument on Romney’s business proficiency and his capacity to turn around the economy — yet many Americans feel the economy is already turning around.  Remember that many of Obama’s most economy-killing measures were crafted so that they would not take effect until after his reelection.  Obama wants to raise taxes on the affluent; he promises and plans to do so in his second term.  So far, however, he’s minimized the burdens on the economy in order to allow for improvement — and thus to help his reelection prospects.  It’s working.  And the more the economy turns around, the less Romney seems necessary.  “I’m the economic turn-around artist the country so desperately needs” was a lot more compelling than “My opponent slowed the recovery.”
  2. When Rich Santorum won three primaries in a single day on February 7th (Minnesota, Colorado, and a non-binding contest in Missouri), he suddenly seemed like a realistic alternative to a lot of conservatives uncomfortable with Romney.  The biggest thing holding Santorum back has been intangible — the sense that he’s not Presidential caliber, not equal to the Oval Office, and not a realistic option to defeat Romney.  He had little financial support, no organization.  But suddenly this guy who’d been driving around Iowa in a pickup truck was winning multiple states on a single day.
  3. Santorum has benefitted from the lamentably predictable self-destruction of Newt Gingrich.  Some of Newt’s supporters were enthralled with his intelligence, but his record as a conservative is mixed, and many of Newt’s supporters had rallied behind him only because they thought he was the only realistic alternative to Romney.  But Newt does not wear well, and the steady bleeding of supporters from Gingrich to Santorum became a veritable hemorrhage after February 7th.  If Romney cannot convince his skeptics, he needs to hope they remain divided between the Non-Roms — but now they’re coalescing.
  4. When all of this is combined with Romney’s previous positioning, it makes for an ominous situation.  In some ways, the Romney campaign in the 2012 cycle is an eerie reflection of the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008.  Being the putative frontrunner, being “inevitable,” having the superior organization and network of powerful and well-healed supporters, is not all it’s cracked up to be.  It’s a boring story — and if there’s one thing our rapacious media machine cannot stand, it’s a boring story.  Every stumble from the “frontrunner” and every victory from a “challenger” creates new narratives the media want to tell.  It’s also not inspiring.  Americans don’t like to be told whom they’ll vote for, and they love the underdog.  America is an underdog story.  Romney has run a Competency Campaign — and that’s just not as inspiring as a Movement Campaign.  Competency, excellence, superlative achievement — these things are nice.  But we believe in causes, visions, uprisings.  Happily for Romney, there is no Republican version of Candidate Obama to go up against Romney the Inevitable in this cycle.  But many conservatives seem to be deciding that Santorum is close enough.

The greatest struggle of the Romney campaign so far, however, has been its inability to connect with social conservatives.  As long as the economy was tanking, enough social conservatives were willing to put their other causes aside in order to support someone who could turn the economy around.  Now that’s no longer the case.  More importantly, though, most social conservatives do not see their social conservative commitments to be something separate from their fiscal conservatism.  They see the values of social conservatism as indispensable supports for a thriving free market economy.

Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, opens up an interesting conceptual space for reexamining Romney’s campaign.  Murry described a dramatically widening gulf between two distinct white American cultures, which he describes through the use of statistical composites he calls “Belmont” (after a well-heeled suburb of Boston) and “Fishtown” (a blue-collar-to-poor part of Philadelphia).  He explains that his fictional “Belmont” is populated by people who “must have at least a bachelor’s degree and work as a manager, physician, attorney, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor or content producer in the media.”  Residents of “Fishtown” must “have no academic degree higher than a high school diploma” and “if they work, it must be in a blue-collar job, a low-skill service job…or a low-skill white-collar job such as mail clerk or receptionist.”  20% of the white population aged 30-49 lives in Belmont and 30% live in Fishtown.

What is remarkable is how distinct the cultures are between Belmont and Fishtown, how unequal they are, and how much further apart they have grown in the five decades from 1960 to 2010.  Not only their income levels, but their participation in crime, their attitudes toward marriage and single parenthood, their work habits and economic values, and their participation in religious traditions (Belmonters are much more likely to practice faith).  But it goes further than this.  The cultural differences “have to do with the food the Belmonters eat, their drinking habits, the ages at which they marry and have children, the books they read (and their number), the television shows and movies they watch (and the hours spent on them), the humor they enjoy, the way they take care of their bodies, the way they decorate their homes, their leisure activities, they work environments and child-raising practices.”

At the risk of oversimplification, I think it’s a fair generalization: Romney is brilliant in Belmont.  But he flounders in Fishtown.

As it happens, Mitt Romney’s primary residence was in the real Belmont until very recently.  He’s lived most of his life in “Belmont.”  He has lived and moved amongst the upper crust, in a culture that seems further and further alienated from Fishtown all the time.  Belmont Republicans love him.  He shares their values, possesses the virtues they extol, excels at the things they admire.  They understand him and they trust him.

Fishtown Republicans do not.  Fishtown Republicans have increasingly insisted on identity politics — having candidates they can identify with, candidates they might expect to find drinking beer at their neighborhood barbecue — because they find so many politicians are increasingly distant from them.

But it’s more than that.  Fishtown Republicans are first-hand witnesses to the decay in the roots of America.  They want a politician who speaks not only to what transpires at the economic surface of the country, but who understands and addresses what is taking place in the moral and cultural depths.  The residents of Fishtown understand deeply and implicitly — because they see it right in front of them — that America’s economic doldrums are not merely a matter of mismanagement at the top.  They’re a matter of long-term cultural decay at the bottom.  Or to use a different metaphor, Romney promises to be a better captain of a ship whose hull is decomposing — and the sailors who work below decks know that plotting a better course of navigation will not save the ship from its ultimate fate.

It’s largely the Fishtown Republicans that have proven so uncomfortable with Romney that they’ve lurched from one non-Rom to another, because Romney has given no vision that appeals to Fishtown Republicans.  A vision of managerial brilliance, of resplendent competence across a variety of organizational spheres, does not touch Fishtown residents where they are.  Romney needs to speak to the culture of Fishtown – to its decay, its present shambles, and to a hopeful future in which that culture is restrengthened and forms the basis of a renewed American economy.

Romney needs — and quickly — to develop a coherent, full-orbed vision of American renewal, one that begins at the roots of moral and cultural regeneration and extends through political and economic transformation.  He should explain that conservatism is compassionate because conservative economic policies best serve all Americans, including the poor — but he should also speak to renewing not only the policies and regulations but also the moral musculature and the cultural values that nurtured the most extraordinary economic expansion in human history.  That would be a vision and a basis for a movement.  The Romney campaign has focused too much on Romney himself.  They need to present him as the leader of something larger than himself.  Otherwise, they won’t defeat Barack Obama, and they may not even win the nomination.

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