The Unknowable Candidate

Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally at Union Terminal on September 1, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio

Watching Mitt Romney address the Republican National Convention this August, it is easy to see that he is comfortable being the center of attention and that he has been there many times before. He speaks with the measured tones of a lawyer—he received a joint JD/MBA from Harvard in 1975—but also with a lawyer’s stereotypical evasiveness. Since his effective nomination as Republican candidate last March, Romney has reversed his position on everything from gun control to the legacy of Reagan’s presidency to the 2008 economic stimulus package and health care reform. He has become a candidate famous for his “flip-flops”, with US comedian Conan O’Brien joking that his biggest opponent in this race is “Mitt Romney from four years ago. Those guys don’t agree on anything”.

Born in Detroit—the once-wealthy home of the US auto industry where his father, George Romney, made the family fortune as chairman of American Motors—Romney often speaks of growing up in humble circumstances and being a “self-made man”. This is mainly due to the success of his private equity firm, Bain Capital (which, in characteristic contradictory style, he claims he built through “hard work”, although the company and its subsidiaries also received large tax breaks and government-funded contracts). He married his wife, Ann, in 1969 when they were both undergraduates at Brigham Young University, and together they have five sons. He is a staunch, fifth-generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (she converted in order to marry him), and has served in many high-level leadership roles. In typical American style, Romney uses his family—his wife’s illnesses, his son’s fluency in Spanish—to paint a picture of an inclusive and accessible American Dream.

Romney has lived in many cities across the US (as well as in France as a missionary). In recent years, perhaps his two most notable regional affiliations have been to Utah and Massachusetts. The former is the spiritual home of the Mormon Church (of which he is a member), and he worked there during his stint as CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. He used his success at the Winter Games to finally launch his political career as governor of Massachusetts, an office he held for one term from 2003 to 2007.

Romney’s personal life highlights one policy area where a President Romney would likely not “flip-flop”: US foreign policy in the Middle East. As a lifelong member and lay preacher in the Church, it is likely that Romney would bring his Church’s doctrine about Israel (Similar to many evangelical denominations in America, the LDS church teaches that Jesus’ Second Coming is predicated on the return of all Jews to Israel.) His doctrine is simple conservative boilerplate—Israel has a right to self-defense, Iran is the enemy and must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons—and it is difficult to imagine a situation that would redirect a Romney administration from the vision of the Middle East advocated by both his party and his beloved church.

But Romney’s indecisiveness is not characteristic of the America known for its ideological purism. Also speaking at this year’s convention was Clint Eastwood, the gun-slinging Western film star. Ironically, Eastwood’s address echoed the one given by John Wayne to the 1968 Republican National Convention—ironically, the year in which Mitt’s father, George Romney, contested the Republican presidential primaries, eventually losing to Nixon. While these gritty cowboys and their hardline conservative rhetoric may appeal to his party’s Midwestern base, Romney is no simple farm boy. In yet another contradiction, he is so much a “city slicker”, too educated and too affluent to truly understand the problems facing his most ardent supporters, that during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign he was forced to run ads showing him engaged in an array of blue-collar and agricultural work to project an image of being ‘in touch’ with rural and manual laborers, the proverbial “real American”.

In the end, so much has been written about Romney that it feels as though one should be able to know everything about the man and understand him completely—though perhaps the only thing to know about Romney is that he conducts himself in a manner that makes him impossible to understand. It remains to be seen if this is a quality Americans want in their president.