Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Associated Press: Mitt Won. Authenticity Lost

Wow. Take a look at this. I found it on Yahoo just now:

ON DEADLINE: Mitt Won, Authenticity Lost

By RON FOURNIER, Associated Press Writer 46 minutes ago

WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney's victory in Michigan was a defeat for authenticity in politics.

The former Massachusetts governor pandered to voters, distorted his opponents' record and continued to show why he's the most malleable — and least credible — major presidential candidate.

And it worked.

The man who spoke hard truths to Michigan lost. Of all the reasons John McCain deserved a better result Tuesday night, his gamble on the economy stands out. The Arizona senator had the temerity to tell voters that a candidate who says traditional auto manufacturing jobs "are coming back is either naive or is not talking straight with the people of Michigan and America."

Instead of pandering, McCain said political leaders must "embrace green technologies," adding: "That's the future. That's what we want."

Romney jumped all over McCain, playing to the fears of voters in a state with the nation's highest unemployment rate. "I've heard people say that the auto jobs are gone and they're never coming back," Romney told his audiences. "Well, baloney, I'm going to fight for every single good job."

Of course, he'd fight for every job. So would McCain, or any future president. But how?

Judging by the brief campaign in Michigan, one candidate would flail away at the problem with empty rhetoric while the other would ask Americans to come to grips with the harsh realities of global competition, a tech-based economy and the urgent need to retrain a generation of workers.

Those aren't easy things for a politicians to say, but the truth is, the days are gone in Michigan and elsewhere when a high school graduate could land a factory job and count on a comfortable, stable middle-class life: a nice home, two cars, college tuition, health insurance and a pension.

Romney didn't talk about any of that.

Instead, he told voters what he thought they wanted to hear.

"I'm not open to a bailout, but I am open to a workout," Romney said of the auto industry, even as he vowed to spend $20 billion over five years for research on energy, fuels, automotive technology and material sciences. How many Michigan voters mistook that that for a multibillion-dollar bailout pledge?

Romney also said he wanted to modify a recently passed measure calling for U.S. vehicle fleets to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Well, baloney. Less than three years ago, Romney seemed to champion higher automobile standards. "Almost everything in America has gotten more efficient in the last decade, except the fuel economy of the vehicles we drive," he said in September 2005.

As is often the case with Romney, he has changed his tone, if not his mind.

This is a man who campaigned for governor of Democratic stronghold Massachusetts as a supporter of abortion rights, gay rights and gun control — only to switch sides on those and other issues in time for the GOP presidential race. The first thing he did as a presidential contender in January was sign the same no-tax pledge an aide dismissed as "government by gimmickry" during the 2002 campaign.

He was a political independent who voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Massachusetts presidential primary; now he is a Reagan conservative. He was for embryonic stem cell research; now he favors restrictions on it.

Here's the puzzling part: Romney is a smart man who succeeded in both business and politics, by all accounts a solid family man who won over Democrats and independents in Massachusetts with his breezy charm and political moderation. He tackled one of the nation's most vexing issues — the cost and accessibility of health care — and helped devise a system in Massachusetts that requires both personal responsibility and government empathy.

Rather than running on his record as a can-do pragmatist in an era of government incompetence, Romney listened to advisers who said there was a tactical advantage in turning himself into the field's social conservative.

Their reasoning: Evangelicals and Republicans who put social issues atop their list had found McCain and Rudy Giuliani, the two early front-runners, unpalatable, so there was room to run on the right.

Now he's won Wyoming and Michigan and leads in the delegate count. Does pandering pay?

Exit polls suggest that Romney won among Michigan voters who cited the economy as their top issue and who said they were falling behind financially. McCain overwhelmingly won among voters who said they were looking for an authentic candidate, but the most-cited candidate quality was "shares my values," and Romney led among those voters.

But don't read too much into the results in Michigan, where a number of factors — starting with low turnout among independents — played to Romney's favor. And don't assume McCain is above it all; he shamelessly courted social conservatives last year and has vastly overstated progress in Iraq. In fact, all leaders pander, but Romney is taking the tactic to new heights.

This still looks to be an authenticity election. First, voters are tired of being spun by politicians who aren't getting their jobs done. From the Vietnam War and Watergate to the Iraq war and Katrina, politicians have failed the people they presume to lead, and often lied about it to boot.

Second, the Internet and other technological advances make it nearly impossible to hide a miscue or a shift of position. Can a candidate like Romney win in the YouTube era? Sure. He just did.

But to go all the way, Romney must overcome the original sin of his campaign — his choice to do whatever it takes to be president. The smart money says he can't.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Ron Fournier covers politics for The Associated Press. On Deadline is an occasional column.

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