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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  • I almost thought I was mildly excited about Romney. Then the other day, I read an article in Reuters about how a brokered convention was a real possibility and I got excited about the race for the first time in a long time. That’s when I realized that Romney’s never going to excite me. He can’t even seem to excite himself. Maybe he’s been running for president too long to care about the country he would be serving; maybe he really is just about himself and it’s coming across so loudly and clearly that no amount of ads or debate prep will change the feeling that there’s not much depth to this presidential run. Mitch Daniels, come on, jump in there, man!

  • mjw

    Interesting analysis. I think that the core issue with Romney is really that he is a facile, empty shell of a man with no core convictions other than that he should be president (and I doubt seriously that he even really understands himself why he wants it so much). He’s the former moderate governor of a blue state who once held progressive positions on social/culture policies who is now running as a hard-right conservative. He is a remarkably bad campaigner and is prone to saying stupid/unintentionally revealing things (“I like to fire people” “I’m not concerned about the very poor”.) The “Belmont” republicans are more comfortable with Romney because they know that he will continue the policies that benefit them financially and are willing to overlook his more obvious flaws. Everyone else sees a painfully awkward facsimile of a human being who is a pale shadow of his brave and smart father.

    “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.”

    I rarely agree with the things you write. Some of these things you write that I disagree with I find challenging and interesting, some of them bothersome. This is the first thing that I’ver read that I think is just plain dumb.

  • Mainline Protestant

    Mitch Daniels is as exciting as a wet dish towel.

  • Janeway

    What you say may be true but I am sorry the people of Fishtown cannot see that an improved economy, improved lives, freedom of choices in their lives is more important that a good talker, back slapper, guy that you want to go to the game with. Their emphasis should be their own lives and their children and parents. It is called voting your self interest not a popularity contest. Mitt will be a great President and can get Obama out of the White House but if voting for a nice guy they just really like other than a qualified candidate then I guess there is nothing to say but I feel for the future of Fishtown with Obama’s reign for another 4 years. Inflation, high energy prices, high unemployment will harm them more than the people of Belmont who will have a cushion and the suffering may be great by the very people who may defeat the only man to save them.It is more sad than anything, Romney will go back to a great life as he doesn’t need to President, we happen to need him and the American we want may never return if the people reject their only shot.

    • Gartrell Bibberts

      Dole, McCain, Romney.

      Next Question.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        You can make a list of three names. Congratulations.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m with you.

  • Larry Bernard

    Thats not his point.

    The guy from Fishtown knows troubled things are in the country. They think the guys from Belmont don’t get these problems because they don’t live them. So they want a guy they can have a beer with because they think he can get their problems. As bill clinton did “I feel your pain”

  • Eukardios

    Oh for the love of . . . . This isn’t it at all. Look, it’s not difficult to understand: one may be a competent manager and great at building organizations, but those are just tools and are completely devoid of any moral, political or philosophical content. The conservative wing of the GOP will grant that Romney is a great manager, but there are plenty of great managers who are also liberals. Romney’s record does not instill confidence that he will be competent toward the right ends, and to date he’s failed to adequately make the case that he would. That’s the sticking point right now, and you really don’t need to look deeper.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’ve addressed Romney’s record and whether it ought to inspire confidence in many other posts. People have legitimate questions regarding his record. This is not lost on me. But he’s had a particularly hard time connecting with folks from Fishtown, and this, I think, is part of the reason.

  • Romney can not inspire or lead – well, at least nobody other than the financial vultures from which he comes. He is another Ivy League Empty Suit. I thought we were done with them?!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      He’s actually a great leader, and can be quite inspiring. He hasn’t really connected his message to Fishtown, though, which was the point of the post.

      I love how erstwhile conservatives are suddenly viewing private equity people as “financial vultures”. Very convenient.

  • “Romney is brilliant in Belmont.” No way! Barely passable at best. This, combined with -not- passable in Fishtown, leaves Romney hobbled. Won’t fly, especially considering the nature of our opposition [Obama].

    And yes, our candidates needs some sort of sharp edge. It would be nice if it were an edge that we agree with, but, regardless, we need some sort of edge. You don’t have to agree with Santorum to like him, but I do.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I attended a reception with Romney in Atlanta amongst many of Atlanta’s most wealthy businessmen. Romney was, yes, brilliant in that setting. Pitch perfect. He was at ease, he spoke freely and compellingly, and gave a stirring oration about American renewal.

      If he were not brilliant in Belmont, he would not have such support from such quarters, and so much money flowing from them.

  • Byron

    Te author is probably correct in principle, but what he advocates has virtually no chance of succeeding in practice.

    At the societal level, “moral musculature” and “cultural values” can’t be talked into existence; those things arise from the lives people lead, they’re products of the conditions of existence as people experience them. If it were otherwise, Santorum could become president.

    History doesn’t move by foresight. People become disillusioned with socialism only by direct, painful experience, when it fails them catastrophically, as it eventually always does. I think we have further to travel down that road before there will be any realistic probability of going in a new direction. As it is, the massive piling-up of debt has no felt reality at all, and so far most people’s direct experience of redistribution/entitlement programs has been to get a lot more out than they put in. The author is shouting into the wind, because our ship is going to sail this course until it crashes on the rocks, which it will, and it won’t be turned around before that happens

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      This is a strange response, Byron. History doesn’t move by foresight, you say (nice phrase, but sometimes the attraction of nice phrases can lead us astray). You seem to be saying that we cannot recognize the problem and work together to renew our culture. But then you say that, after we’ve gone a little further down the path to oblivion, *then* it’s possible that we will…recognize the problem and work together to renew our culture.

      We already are breaching against the shoals. Some people recognize that already. Others don’t. But you have to start raising the alarm even before everyone understands the emergency, right? And did I say anywhere that we’re going to band together and turn this thing around in the short term? Nyet.

      I do not consider a renewal of our moral culture highly likely in the next ten years. I don’t know whether it’s even possible. But I do think that people of good will can recognize the need and work through cultural institutions for renewal. I’m simply joining my voice to those who are calling for us to redouble our efforts.

  • tex

    These people from Fishtown don’t realize that their version of America is long gone and will never come back. The days of a high school dropout getting a good factory job and supporting a middle class lifestyle with a picket fence and a nice car and two kids and a dog are fantasy in 2012.

    The Fishtown men are basically losers in today’s society. It is college that determines if you have basic competency in today’s high tech world. These Fishtowners just can’t compete, and are getting further and further behind, and they want to blame everyone and anyone for their failures, a la the disgruntled minorities in the inner city.

    Tapping into that frustration is unfortunately the key to winning any election. It seems to me that instead of taking out your frustration on Romney is increadibly short sighted and doomed to failure. Looking in the mirror and seeing how these Fishtowners goofed off in high school, never studied and made themselves employable to good jobs is a more realistic exercise. It is then they will lay the blame on the true person responsible—themselves.

  • Predictable demise of Gingrich? How about being outspent in negative advertising by 65 to 1? It’s simple physics.

  • Chilloutyo

    Some Romney supporters feel sorry for the poor people of Fishtown because the latter are too stupid to appreciate the obvious brilliance of Romney and his elitist approach to governance. How Progressive of the Romneyites. OTOH the Belmont folks are comfortable that a President Romney would bail out all their elite Progressive institutions, once socialism fails, by encouraging the FED to print money and thus inflate the cost of food and fuel that only the peons of Fishtown care about.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Of me and my friends who are the most ardent evangelical supporters of Romney, none come from Belmont. All come from Fishtown. They may be living in Belmont now. But I sense no condescension toward Fishtown. If anything, these are defenders of Fishtown, people who are most instinctively inclined to sneer at the salon crowd.

  • T.J.

    “Rich” Santorum?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Freudian slip?

  • Sadly, you have all fallen for the KABUKI. Mitt is right on course and you will get to know him better in the next few months. The bad guys at the Boston Globe have gifted him a new book “The Real Romney” and he holds more ballots than all the rest combined after Super Tues. According to the Kaballah Rabbis in the new revelation “Meet Mitt” from the Tora Code, Mitt will take office and win the Praise of G-D and of the people for years to come. We will see an exciting convention and all according to the Plan. It is only by coincidence (“?) that I registered the URL, “” many months ago. See it and the explanation of KABUKI at