Is Mitt Romney a Doctor Faustus? That’s a question Carter Eskew of The Washington Post asked recently. As Romney was the top vote getter in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday (albeit by a mere eight votes over Rick Santorum), it’s worth examining the question.
Under the pressure of a presidential campaign, candidates are tempted to make deals with the devil, to sell off little pieces of their soul to save their political fortunes. In the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Bill Clinton lied about Gennifer Flowers. His comeback was built on a falsehood that would haunt him throughout his administration. In the 2000 South Carolina primary, George W. Bush dropped his “uniter” facade and ran a divisive campaign to destroy the surging John McCain, the kind of expediency that would plague him periodically during his two-term presidency.
Now it’s Mitt Romney’s turn. Desperate to avoid a lengthy primary season that could drain him financially and politically, Romney is trying to prove his conservative credentials by saying things about President Obama that he undoubtedly knows are false. It is part of a frame where Romney accuses Obama of giving up on America and presents himself as the great restorer.
Eskew has the following advice for the GOP frontrunner:
Romney has a good chance of winning the nomination and being president of a country facing extraordinary challenges with the mechanisms to fix them in shambles. The only way to govern such a country is to reestablish trust. And the only way to do that is to be honest even when it isn’t easy. How Romney chooses to win will be as important as if he wins.
Romney, however, continues to say things that he thinks will please the radical right—including recently (as I quoted yesterday) that President Obama is “poison[ing] the very spirit of America and keep[ing] us from being one nation under God.”
We all know why Romney is doing this. He’s like the sweet guy in a schoolyard full of bullies who has to prove that he’s tough. He knows he shouldn’t say such things but he really, really wants to be accepted. Other potential candidates (Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush) decided that they weren’t willing to play that game and as a result saw no hope for their candidacies. Jon Huntsman, who has tried to run a principled campaign, may be proving them right as he appears stuck in single digit approval ratings.
So what kind of price will Romney pay?
Romney’s moderate Republican supporters, such as Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post, seem to think that, once elected, Romney will be able to shrug off this bad ass pose and return to being Mr. Nice Guy. In other words, there won’t be a price.
Paul Krugman of The New York Times agrees but from a liberal perspective. If the media doesn’t hold Romney accountable for his lies, he says, then we really will have entered an era of “post-truth politics” and there “will be no real penalty for running an utterly fraudulent campaign.”
On the other hand, George Packer of The New Yorker, like Eskew, is not sure that Parker is right:
It would be a mistake, though, to believe that, long after Iowa, once the horse race is over, and if he’s elected, Romney could suddenly flip a switch, clear the air of the toxicity left behind by the Republican field, and return to being a cautious centrist whose most reassuring quality is his lack of principles. His party wouldn’t let him; and, after all, how a candidate runs shapes how a President governs. In politics, once a sellout, always a sellout; once a thug, always a thug.
Christopher Marlowe would agree with Packer and Eskew. Faustus may think that he can always reclaim his soul and, indeed, he appears to always have the option. After all, a soul is not an object that can be sold. But we can turn our backs on it. Throughout the play, first good angels and then a kindly old man tell Faustus it’s not too late to turn back to the good.
But turning back becomes harder and harder. “My heart’s so hardened I cannot repent,” Faustus says. By the end of his life, he has lost perspective and no longer knows what is important and what is trivial. Whereas once he had vast ambitions, by the end of his life he has become a court entertainer, doing magic tricks and playing practical jokes. He has been hollowed out.
My worry about Romney is that, in his willingness to say anything, he has lost touch with his vital center. Ronald Reagan, whatever one thinks of him, knew why he wanted to be president. With Romney, my sense is that there’s nothing particular he wants to accomplish. He just wants the title. He started out as the kind of Republican we need more of but now he seems to be just a shell.
I am tempted to say of him what Jane Austen says of John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility: “Had he married a more amiable woman [i.e., been a candidate when his party hadn’t gone off the deep end], he might have been made still more respectable than he was:—he might even have been made amiable himself.” (His wife, incidentally, is described as “narrow-minded and selfish.”)
If Romney becomes our next president, I will not say, as Rush Limbaugh said of Obama, that I hope he fails. Rather, I hope he will find ways to unite the country and get it to prosper. But I worry that I’m seeing a combination of Faustus and John Dashwood, and that’s not a promising sign.