Column: Does Mitt Romney really want to be president?

Wed Aug 29, 2012 6:13pm EDT

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney waves with his wife Ann Romney after she addressed the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida August 28, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney waves with his wife Ann Romney after she addressed the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida August 28, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Joe Skipper

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(The views expressed are the author's own and not those of Reuters)

TAMPA, Florida - Is Mitt Romney hungry enough to be elected president? The economy is stumbling, and America is hurting. No one, except political giants Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, has been re-elected with more than 7 percent unemployed, and the president is presiding over a huge 8.3 percent and rising, with no prospect of that figure coming down in the foreseeable future. Romney should be running away with the race by now. But the contest is neck and neck and has been for months.

There is an unnerving sense of complacency in Romney's bearing that gives the Republican base the jitters. He is handsome, smooth, affable, articulate, and lively, with hair immaculately coiffed and jeans impeccably ironed -- but where is the passion? It is all very well being diffident when there is nothing at stake. But from what he tells us, Americans are facing a generational choice, and if we get it wrong, we will end up with the sort of social democracy they have in Sweden. Yet with the nation in danger and Americans about to be shackled by agents of the state, all Romney offers is sweet reason. The Republicans gathered in Tampa have the right to ask: Does he really want to win this thing or not?

We have seen ultra-calm candidates before. George H.W. Bush went on the re-election stump as if being president once was good enough. He had ticked off living in the White House on his bucket list, and fighting to stay there seemed an unnecessary chore. He had a perfectly good home in Kennebunkport. He felt entitled to win a second time, but was not prepared to put himself out. It was little surprise when he failed to be re-elected.

The same sense of expectant, unruffled arrogance hung over Al Gore. With the election result too close to call and Republicans in Florida dragging their feet over the recount that would tip the presidency into his lap, Gore should have been as angry as Peter Finch in "Network," going public with his frustration and demanding that justice be done in the greatest democracy in the world. Instead of shouting and screaming, however, Gore hired lawyers, sat back and let the Supreme Court roll over him. He didn't deserve the presidency because he didn't want it enough.

The same could be said of John Kerry, a former military hero who ran at a time when America was fighting two foreign wars. If anyone was qualified to be commander in chief, he was. He had a chestful of medals and had volunteered not only to lead men into battle against creeping communism in Vietnam but to go back for a second tour of duty. Against him was a president who defended America from the safety of the Texas National Guard and a warmongering vice-president who dodged fighting the good fight with the help of five deferments. The nerve! When the Swift Boat veterans swiftboated him, Kerry should have come out all guns blazing. How dare they impugn his honor? But he kept his hurt to himself and let others speak for him. Unsurprisingly, he lost.

You can be too keen for the job. No one can forget the raucous ardor with which Howard Dean, punching the air and bellowing like a rutting stag, belted out the states of the union like Ethel Merman playing a deranged geography teacher. And you can find your passionate side too late, as Hillary Clinton did when Obama overtook her on the inside and she belatedly rediscovered her blue-collar roots and became Rosie the Riveter. Romney is far more like Bush 41, Gore and Kerry than Dean and Clinton. He says he dearly wants to lead us to a prosperous future, but he can't seem to break sweat to do it.

Some of Romney's problem may be the age we live in. Marshall McLuhan described television as a "cool" medium, meaning that viewers bring a lot of themselves to understanding what they see on TV. Television favors cool people like John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, on whom voters project their own dreams. Mitt Romney is undoubtedly cool, but perhaps too much so. He comes over as positively chilly. Most important, Romney cannot seem to excite the Republican base, which is why Paul Ryan was chosen to shore up the ticket. A man with bookcase full of unreadable tomes by Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman gives off all the right signals to the disenchanted Tea Party people.

But we are not electing President Ryan. Voters must warm to Romney if they are going to catapult him into America's top job. Coming to Tampa to be crowned offers a perfect chance to throw off his froideur and tell us why he truly, madly, deeply wants to be our president. But Romney has already declared he has no intention of letting it all hang out "like I'm a piece of meat." So can he light a fire under the GOP faithful? It seems a little unlikely. We'll find out on Thursday.

(Nicholas Wapshott's "Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics" is published by W.W. Norton. Read extracts here here. Follow @nwapshott at Twitter.)

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