It’s 864 miles from Boston, Mass., to Breaks, Va., but by one measurement—mine—a 6-year old incident in that small town had a huge impact on the presidential prospects of the Massachusetts governor that still resonates today—to Mitt Romney’s distinct disadvantage.
As the 2006 midterm campaign began, Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen seemed well on his way to a big re-election victory—the prelude to his all-but-certain campaign for president in 2008. Allen’s strong appeal to the religious right promised to provide him a huge advantage in Iowa, where more than half the Republican electorate is self-identified evangelicals.
Then, on Aug. 11, while campaigning in Breaks, Allen spied S.R. Sidarth, who was video recording Allen on behalf of his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb. Turning to Sidarth, Allen said:
“This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. Let's give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”
While Allen, who's currently running for the Senate against former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, later said he had simply made it up, “macaca” is a racially insulting term used by colonial whites in Northern Africa. (“Monkey” is the translation from the Portuguese.) The fact that Allen’s mother is of French-Tunisian descent made it implausible that he had, by some incredible coincidence, made up the term.
The existence of YouTube meant that the video recorded by Sidarth became a permanent feature of the campaign coverage. That November, Allen lost his seat by less than one-half of 1 percentage point—and with that loss, his presidential campaign disappeared.
For then-Gov. Mitt Romney, who was preparing his own presidential campaign, Allen’s absence from the field seemed to open up a whole new opportunity. None of the other GOP prospects—New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, former Sen. Fred Thompson—had any special appeal to evangelicals, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was virtually unknown, with no financial resources to speak of. With Romney’s enormous financial advantage, the thinking went, Romney could win in Iowa, capture his neighboring state of New Hampshire a week later, and effectively cinch the nomination in its opening weeks.
To do that, however, Romney would have to accelerate his efforts to move to the political right. His essentially centrist moderate tenure as governor—pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, pro-environmentalism—was always going to be a problem with the increasingly conservative base of the Republican Party. Had Allen won his race and entered the presidential contest, Romney might well have chosen the path that McCain took: skip Iowa and concentrate his efforts in New Hampshire, where evangelicals represent a far smaller element of the GOP. But with Iowa now a target of opportunity for Romney, his move rightward became more like a lunge.
That has haunted him for six years.
It’s not just that the tactic failed as Huckabee leveraged his strong support among evangelicals to win the Iowa caucuses, and McCain reminded New Hampshire folks why they’d fallen in love with him in 2000.
It’s that Romney had to so completely redefine himself that it stamped him as a candidate who cannot tell us who he is and what he stands for. Despairing conservative pundits keep urging him to “tell America who you really are,” and it brings to mind Robert Kennedy in 1965 entreating New York mayoral candidate Abe Beame to “tell the voters why you want to be mayor!”—to which Beame replied: “Great—what do I say then?”
For me, Romney always seems in perpetual fear of saying the wrong thing, finding himself trapped between the governor he was, and the candidate he has been and still is. If my memory is correct, there has never been a moment when Romney has said to his party’s base, “I have a different view than you do about" about, well, anything, as Bill Clinton did on welfare and free trade, as George W. Bush did on the federal government’s role in education.
It may well be true that Romney running on his record in Massachusetts could not have won the Republican nomination in 2008, or in 2012. But had Allen not uttered that infamous “macaca” phrase, Romney might well have had no choice. And it would, I believe, have made him a far more formidable candidate.