It's typical that in the sorry state of American journalism that finally, now that Mitt Romney's about to be annointed as GOP nominee in waiting and maybe the 45th president (if this prediction about unemployment is correct) that we're finally getting around to asking who this guy is and what does he really want.
The cavalry -- in the form of senior officers Frank Rich and Eugene Robinson -- is making a belated charge here. First here's Rich -- who reminds us why the Times Sunday Week in Review section has been so lame since he bolted for New York Magazine:
For four years now, Republicans have been demonizing Barack Obama for his alleged “otherness”—trashing him as a less-than-real American pushing “anti-colonial,” socialist, and possibly Islamist ideas gleaned from a rogue’s gallery of subversive influences led by his Kenyan father, Saul Alinsky, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And yet Romney is in some ways more exotic and more removed from “real America” than Obama ever was, his gleaming white camouflage notwithstanding. Romney is white, all right, but he’s a white shadow. He can come across like an android who’s been computer-generated to be the perfect genial candidate. When forced to interact with actual people, he tries hard, but his small talk famously takes the form of guessing a voter’s age or nationality (usually incorrectly) or offering a greeting of “Congratulations!” for no particular reason. Richard Nixon was epically awkward too, but he could pass (in Tom Wicker’s phrase) as “one of us.” Unlike Nixon’s craggy face, or, for that matter, Gingrich’s, Romney’s does not look lived in. His eyes don’t show the mileage of a veteran fighter’s journey through triumphs and hard knocks—the profile that Americans prefer to immaculate perfection in a leader during tough times. Even at Mitt’s most human, he resembles George Hamilton without the self-deprecating humor or the perma-tan.
Nailed it in that one paragraph. In a more down-to-earth style, the Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning Robinson asks the same questions:
Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have all laid out bold visions — more properly, hallucinations — of where they would take the country. But where is Romney’s shining city on a hill? What’s his “compassionate conservatism,” his “hope and change”? What is it that Mitt Romney, deep in his heart or down in his gut, really believes in?
“Free enterprise” seems to be what he’s most passionate about, but that’s not really an answer to the question of core beliefs. Who doesn’t believe in free enterprise? Obama would advocate a bit more regulation of markets than Romney would; Santorum and Paul, less. Gingrich, of course, wants free-market spaceships to fly us to the moon.
Watching the recent GOP debates that bracketed Obama's State of the Union address really drove home how deeply flawed the Romney candidacy is. His core message -- which isn't about him, of course, but about the idea that Obama is fundamentally un-American, that he goes around the world apologizing for his country (he doesn't) and has embraced "European-style socialism" (he hasn't) is something that plays well, or at least OK, at an all-Republican rally. But those allegations will look silly -- or be rendered unusable -- when he goes toe-to-toe with Obama in a debate. (I think even GOP voters realize that, which is why they're not "all in" with Romney yet.)
Over the coming months, I think many voters will be asking the title of Rich's piece: "Who in God's name is Mitt Romney?"