What’s the matter with Mitt? Why Romney can’t win over conservatives

Jeff Greenfield

"There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan," President Kennedy observed after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but Mitt Romney's campaign—living in between victory and defeat, and desperately hoping that the Alabama and Mississippi primaries can end the uncertainty—has brought with it a thousand kibitzers, offering the kind of free advice that is worth every penny: He must show his human side, he must connect with real people, he must define himself more clearly, he must offer us a compelling vision of why he wants to be president. (Assuming he does not answer, as New York mayoral candidate Abe Beame did in 1965 to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, "Right--What do I say then?")

Lurking beneath the surface of these concerns is a more fundamental one that no amount of repositioning or "messaging" can fix. Put simply, it is that Mitt Romney is ill-equipped to embrace the Republican Party's favorite argument: that its candidate best embodies the values and attributes of the American electorate—or, at least, the part of the country that Sarah Palin called "the Real America."

This strategy goes back decades, and has taken many forms. It was Richard Nixon's argument in his 1946 congressional campaign, when he claimed to stand for "the forgotten American," it was a central theme of his 1968 campaign, when he hailed "the nonshouters, the nondemonstrators," and it was at the heart of his appeal a year later to "the great silent majority."

It was a foundation of George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign, which managed to define Michael Dukakis as a Harvard-trained elitist, indifferent to the pull of patriotism. "Should public school teachers be required to lead our children in the pledge of allegiance?" Bush asked in his acceptance speech. "My opponent says no—and I say yes," he said, before embarking on a tour of flag factories.

It was at the core of the effort in 2000 to paint Al Gore as a smug, condescending elitist with no faith in the common sense of ordinary Americans. "He trusts the government," George Bush argued. "I trust the people." It was how Republicans wanted the voter to see John Kerry in 2004, as a French-speaking Ivy Leaguer who put Swiss cheese on his Philly cheese steak and wind-surfed.

This all-but-permanent Republican "values" strategy is rooted in the conflicts of race, war and culture that left many in the white working and middle class convinced that more affluent, educated Democrats had contempt for their convictions. So why would Mitt Romney find such an appeal so vexing? Consider:

Life Experience: From FDR to JFK to the Bushes, candidates have used a life-changing experience to surmount the debilitating handicap of wealth and privilege. Roosevelt had to overcome polio (a fact well-known to voters, even if there was little photographic evidence of his ailment). Kennedy and the first Bush were war heroes who almost lost their lives in combat. George W. Bush turned his life around after a past characterized by indolence and excessive drinking.

Romney has no such event in his life, no burden to suggest that he has experienced a struggle or setback. This is hardly a mark against him, but it does suggest that his life offers little to suggest that he understands the problems of "people like me."

God: Nothing more bonds a Republican candidate to the party's conservative base than a strong sense of religious identification. As Adrian Wooldridge and John Mickelthwait wrote in "The Right Nation" in 2004: "The best predictor of whether a white American votes Republican is not his or her income but how often he or she goes to church. In 2000, Bush won 79 percent of the votes of those whites who went to church more than once a week (and only 33 percent of those who never went)." Mitt Romney's political misfortune is that while he is clearly tied to a strong sense of faith, it is a faith that many devout evangelical Christians regard with suspicion.

Equally important, because of its relatively small numbers and its unique theology, Mormonism is a faith with which most Americans have little familiarity. Thus, Romney's most authentic appeal on the basis of his faith involves his commitment to a faith that distances him from those most likely to vote on the basis of religious devotion.

Imagery: Think of Reagan and what do you see? A lifetime spent in Hollywood? Or Ron and Nancy on horseback in the Santa Ynez mountains? Think of George W. Bush and what do you see? A descendant of generations of WASP aristocrats with a Yale and a Harvard degree? No, a jeans-clad good ol' boy clearing brush in Crawford, Texas.

Now picture Mitt Romney. What do you see? A man most comfortable in a blue suit and a crisp white shirt. In a sense, his awkwardness in trying to establish a connection with voters is almost endearing—almost, because it comes with a sense of desperation akin to watching someone dance who is trying to remember the steps he learned at Arthur Murray's Dance Studio.

Can a candidate win an election without a deep-seated "one of us" appeal? Yes, especially because someone running against an incumbent party in a bad economy can persuade voters he's "one of them" by embracing their economic discontent. In 2008, more than two-thirds of voters said Barack Obama "understood the problems of people like me." If the economy weakens over summer and fall as it did last year, and if gas prices keep draining American pockets, voters may bond with whomever is running against the president.

But a Republican candidate who cannot present that gut-level argument bears a special burden. And in the case of Mitt Romney, the burden is particularly heavy.

Jeff Greenfield is a Yahoo News columnist, the co-host of PBS' "Need to Know" and the author of "Then Everything Changed," now out in paperback. Follow him on Twitter: @greenfield64.