After months as a stealth candidate, conducting a presidential Rose Garden strategy without the rose garden, Mitt Romney has flip-flopped. From sitting down with Chris Wallace on Fox News in his first Sunday interview in nearly two years to making regular morning appearances on MSNBC, Romney is suddenly omnipresent on TV screens, even reading a Top Ten list for David Letterman. About all that is missing is for Mitt the Accessible to pop up on Animal Planet to defend the 1980s vacation drive to Canada with the family's Irish setter, Seamus, on the car roof.
Romney can still parry almost any question without mussing his hair or deviating from script. Asked by MSNBC's Chuck Todd Wednesday to comment on the dispute between Senate and House Republicans over terms for extending the payroll tax cut, Romney, normally the master of detail, begged off by complaining that the question was "deep in the weeds." On Fox & Friends Wednesday morning, Romney made an implicit comparison with Newt Gingrich when he said: "I am not willing to be a bomb-thrower. Or go over-the-top and say outrageous things or outlandish things or incendiary things simply for the purpose of getting people excited."
But buried in the eight major interviews that Romney has granted in the last three weeks (six on television and two to newspapers) are tantalizing clues about his would-be presidency. They represent the closest that we may get in this campaign to Romney Unplugged, a hint of about how he might govern if his six-year quest for the presidency ends in the Oval Office.
The more I study Romney's words, the more he reminds me of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, who was hailed by Princeton University political scientist Fred Greenstein for his "prudent professionalism." Beyond his private-sector background, Romney is peddling the prudence of experience. "A leader needs to be someone of sobriety and stability," Romney told the New York Times last week. In his interview on Fox News Sunday, Romney stressed that his proposal for cutting the federal budget by $500 billion by 2016 is a (wait for it) "responsible plan." When Bill O'Reilly pressed Romney Monday night to pander to the conservative base by agreeing that Barack Obama is a "socialist," Romney resisted the political urge to say anything imprudent about the president. As Romney put it, "I just prefer to use the term that he is over his head."
The most revealing interview that Romney has given in months was not with a prominent cable TV host but rather with the Des Moines Register editorial board, which later endorsed him. Talking about presidential leadership, Romney invoked qualities like "character, vision" and being "trusted by others." Moving beyond the obvious paeans to Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt, Romney began gushing about a president who rarely is mentioned in Republican debates or on the campaign trail. "Dwight Eisenhower," he said, "one of my favorite presidents. He doesn't get enough credit. I love Dwight Eisenhower." What is telling here is Romney's passion for a non-ideological moderate who brought a sense of bureaucratic order, honed in the military, to the White House.
George H.W. Bush, who had his own stylistic similarities to Ike, was always bedeviled by what he called "the vision thing." But Bush's strength as a president at the time the Cold War was melting flowed from his carefully nurtured personal relationships with world leaders and key legislators on Capitol Hill.
Without ever referring to Bush, Romney boasted about using similar techniques as governor to appeal to the Democratic leaders of the state legislature. "I figured out from Day One, I'm going to get nothing done if I attack these guys on a personal basis," Romney told the Register. "The speaker of the House and the Senate president have to have respect for me and I for them. I went and met with them in their offices." In similar fashion, during his interview on Fox News Sunday, Romney declared, "Leaders actually spend time meeting with people on the other side of the aisle, understand their needs, understand their concerns, get their input and look for some way to find common ground."
When not asking candidates about the latest poll numbers, TV interviewers are fond of posing hypotheticals about foreign policy crises. The answers to these questions are rarely revealing, because it is difficult and dangerous for a would-be president to spell out under what circumstances he might bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. But Romney, in his late November interview with Bret Baier on Fox News, did sound eerily Bushian (the father not the son) when he talked about repairing America's relationship with Pakistan, "We need to have a president who can be on the phone, who can have a personal relationship, not only with [President Asia Ali] Zardari, generals in Pakistan, with members of the ISI [security service], to assure that they understand exactly where we're coming from, and we understand their interests."
Romney, in an effort to show voters his emotional side, has begun talking about his wife Ann's ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis. He described the day that her disease was diagnosed to Chris Wallace: "We stood up and hugged each other, and I said to her, 'As long as it's not something fatal, I'm just fine. Look, I'm happy in life as long as I've got my soul mate with me.'" But Romney, again like George H.W. Bush, does not naturally gravitate to public heart-on-the-sleeve confessionals.
Far closer to the real Romney style is the restrained model of the candidate's father, George, a former governor of Michigan who was driven from the 1968 presidential race after he claimed that he had been "brainwashed" into supporting the Vietnam War. Long after the war was over, Ann Romney asked her father-in-law whether he felt belatedly vindicated in his opposition to Vietnam. On Fox News Sunday, Mitt Romney admiringly quoted his father's late-in-life response, "You know, I never look back. I only look forward."
As the most disciplined presidential candidate of this century aside from perhaps Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney will always remain enigmatic. Certainly, his father's credo of never looking back, never indulging in introspection, does not lend itself to let-it-all-hang-out self-revelation. But the more that Romney steps from the shadows into TV studios for formal interviews (along with regular sit-downs with the print press), the more accurately we can envision the prudent contours of a Romney presidency.
Update, 5:13 p.m. ET: With impeccable but surprising timing, George H.W. Bush endorsed Mitt Romney for president Thursday afternoon, just a few hours after this piece was posted. Coincidence or politics miraculously imitating art?
Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.
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