In the cliché of the season, Mitt Romney is supposed to be executing a graceful “pivot” away from the grating extremist stupidity of the Republican primaries, the better to persuade us that he really is a Massachusetts moderate, or a moderate conservative – or at least something less repellent to independent voters than a Tea Party yahoo. He stumbled in mid-pivot, however, when a woman posing a question to him at a Cleveland event on Monday said President Obama “should be tried for treason,” and Romney acted as if he didn’t hear her slur.
The presumptive nominee told reporters afterward that “of course” he didn’t agree with the woman’s remark — as if he had failed to check a box on a form — but his alibi was too late and much too little. When someone slanders the President of the United States as a traitor, the responsible reaction is to respond loudly and forthrightly. Shrinking from the duty to correct the extremism of your own supporters, as Senator John McCain did without hesitation four years ago, is yet another sign of weak character and poor judgment.
Romney’s instinct is to appease the same far right forces that his father George and other conscientious Mormons broke with many years ago, although such fringe ideological obsessions held sway at the highest levels of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. He is entirely familiar with the John Birch Society paranoia and white supremacist bigotry that notoriously defaced Mormonism in those times, both of which exert an unwholesome influence on Tea Party Republicans today. Somehow, he cannot bring himself to speak up when confronted with that old nightmare mentality.
Instead Romney consistently seeks to ingratiate himself with anyone who expresses a distaste for Obama, no matter how demented. The same scenario has recurred again and again, as it did in the town of Bexley, Ohio in early March, where a man who claimed to have a concealed-carry permit asked whether the former Massachusetts governor will “allow me to keep my gun and protect myself and my family and my home and not come and get my gun? Because I want to keep it to protect myself and my wife and my family — and against a tyrannical government, which I think we are approaching and we are in, very close.”
While blandly answering that he “believes in the Second Amendment,” Romney failed to reassure this poor character that we are not, in fact, on the brink of tyranny. Is that what he believes? Of course not, he would reply – but why should he be expected to forfeit some crank’s vote by standing up for decent discourse?
The problem is not that Romney is missing opportunities to reach the benighted yahoos in his party, who are mostly beyond reason. It is that he lacks the fortitude to do so when he thinks honor and honesty might cost him. And it means that if the cranks continue to dominate Congress, as they do now, no moderating voice will emanate from a scared and silent Romney White House.