I don’t bother to vote anymore, but the first vote I ever cast was against Mitt Romney. It was 1994, I’d turned 18 two weeks before, and Romney was challenging Ted Kennedy for the Massachusetts Senate, a seat he’d held since 1962. I lived in Hopkinton, a small town that over the course of my childhood was turned into a bedroom community for lawyers, bankers and software engineers. They bought McMansions in its acres of recently felled woods, commuted the 25 miles east to Boston or various distances north and south to the biotech firms along the ring roads and generally changed Hopkinton’s flavour from what you might call ‘Masshole townie’ to ‘East Coast Yuppie’. (Twelve years later, it was the town where Neil Entwistle murdered his wife and infant daughter.) Every summer my father, a truck driver, pulled the Democratic town committee’s float in the 4 July parade, but my mother always suspected him of being a Reagan Democrat in the voting booth. I can’t claim to have had much politics of my own at the time, and had even passed through a reactionary phase that involved an aspirational Ronald Reagan costume for Halloween 1984, so I can only attribute my antipathy to Romney to a stirring of identity politics. Say what you want about the Kennedys, they were authentically of Massachusetts. Romney was a Mormon from Michigan and, more insidiously, a rich guy who wasn’t a Boston Brahmin like the then Governor Bill Weld, a recognisable holdover from a Wasp ruling class that had given way to an Irish American bootlegging dynasty and affiliated ethnic pols like Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas. Romney lived in a mansion in Belmont, a town between Cambridge and Walden Pond with nothing but mansions; in the era of NWA I recall another boy being teased for being ‘straight outta Belmont’. In our imaginations, it was the softest, whitest, richest place in the world, and a Belmont leveraged-buyout artist was easy to vote against.
Romney lost to Kennedy 58 to 41 in 1994, and for years it seemed he might be one of those wealthy men who refuse further humiliation on the public stage and go back to making money. But he’s turned out to be a sort of Duracell Bunny with a stiff jaw, a spongy ideology and a chronic Oedipal complex – not to mention a fortune of around $250 million. He won the governorship of Massachusetts (in an open race against a weak field) in 2002, and started campaigning for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination before his term was over. No doubt the White House was his goal all along: his father, president of American Motors and governor of Michigan, was beaten in the 1968 primaries by Nixon and made secretary of housing and urban development, not a prized job in a Republican cabinet. Romney père’s mistake was to explain his switch from hawk to dove on Vietnam with the claim that he’d been ‘brainwashed’ into supporting the war by generals on a visit to Saigon. His son, pandering to heartland conservatives by opposing what he once defended in liberal Boston, likes to pretend that his shifts – on abortion rights, gay rights and healthcare mandates – never really happened. But he has maintained an admirable consistency on the issues that actually matter to him: slashing corporate regulation and taxes on capital gains.
So it’s hard, given his earnest commitment to the values he most cherishes (demonstrable in such so-called gaffes as ‘corporations are people’; ‘I like being able to fire people’; and ‘I’m not concerned about the very poor’), not to sympathise with him as he serially fails to consolidate his status as GOP front-runner, despite his previous second-place finish to McCain and enormous expenditure (much of it by proxy) on TV advertising. The summer and fall seemed a rolling Republican audition for a reality show called Anyone but Romney: the hairpiece, the foster mom, the cowboy and the pizza pedlar all took their turn at the top of the polls and all succeeded in humiliating themselves. But with the Republican Party having some decades ago adopted its own version of identity politics (that of the victimised white Christian compelled by the state to subsidise abortions and attend gay weddings), they all had something Romney lacks: marketable authenticity. He can’t play the victim because he can never stop bragging. His three remaining challengers are authentic haters: Newt Gingrich hates liberal journalists and his ex-wives; Rick Santorum hates Ahmadinejad, Chavez and sodomy; Ron Paul hates foreign wars and the Federal Reserve. Romney’s campaign is all about what he loves: money.
You’d think that would be a winner. Every American believes he or she has a chance of getting rich. (Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, even I sometimes believe this too.) Romney wants nothing more than to serve as manager-in-chief, delivering dividends to the citizen shareholders. That’s been enough in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada, and will probably deliver him the nomination. The Republican Party habitually takes the conservative movement and the Christian right for granted because in national elections they have no other option besides staying home (which can indeed prove fatal to GOP candidates). The most interesting argument from the Christian right against Romney is that a Mormon president might lead to a scary conversion rate. Romney’s Mormonism is the sort of authenticity he can’t flaunt because two hundred years after Joseph Smith’s visions it’s still thought to be weird. He in any case keeps religion separate from politics and has pointed out that he never tried to criminalise alcohol or extramarital sex in Massachusetts.
‘If it’s between Obama and Romney, there isn’t all that much difference,’ George Soros said in an interview that Newt Gingrich has deployed in a campaign ad. And Romney, as the first Mormon president, would enjoy a status, in terms of identity politics, analogous to Obama’s, to be followed surely by female, Asian-American, Hispanic, Indian, Jewish and Muslim executives. (In honour of my paternal grandmother, Clathora, I’m holding out for the first Albanian-American commander-in-chief.) Obama has succeeded in propping up banks, handing out money to health insurers, deporting Mexicans, filling the skies with drones and killing an unarmed terrorist in his pyjamas. He’s failed to close Guantánamo, roll back tax cuts for the wealthy and prosecute perpetrators of financial fraud. A President Romney would probably extend his successes and, in his words, ‘double down’ on his failures. Unlike most Massachusetts presidential also-rans in recent memory, he doesn’t sound phony when he says the word ‘folks’. His administration would bring more McMansions and more people sleeping in their cars, more bank profits and more personal bankruptcies, more wars and more liberals saying: ‘We just can’t help it, this is who they elected.’ I didn’t vote for Obama, but I might bother to vote against Romney, just for old time’s sake.