Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro shops, is about as American as you can get. Morris's rags-to-riches story of how he founded one of the nation's largest outdoor retailers with little more than old-fashioned pluck, a U-Haul, and eight feet of space in his dad's Missouri liquor store, is often invoked as a testament to the extraordinary ordinariness of the American Dream. Mr. Morris's subsequent largesse is also impressive: he has given handsome sums to multiple charities and has helped make NASCAR a household name.
You might ask then just what Morris has in common with a Michigan-born, multi-millionaire venture capitalist, who is also the former governor of that bluest of the blues, (Tax)achusetts. You wouldn’t be alone. Many people are asking the question following the recent appearance of Mitt Romney, would-be 2012 G.O.P. presidential candidate, in the pit area of the Daytona 500, "mingling with race car drivers while wearing a Bass Pro Shops shirt." And that's not the half of it: According to The New York Times, Mr. Romney has also stopped wearing neckties and has been getting his hair cut at a suburban Atlanta strip mall. It appears then that Mr. Romney's re-branding of himself is well underway.
Yet the former governor appears to be in a constant state of becoming. As I have previously noted in this space, in the 2008 G.O.P primaries, Mitt Romney changed his message not once, but four times. There was Romney 1.0, the Massachusetts liberal Republican who had previously supported gay rights and abortion rights. Then Rudy Giuliani entered the 2008 race and it seemed that there was only room for one liberal Republican, so Romney's campaign launched Romney 2.0, the social conservative. The problem there was that Mike Huckabee started to win with social conservatives. Accordingly, the campaign released Romney 3.0, the change-agent: Washington was broken, he told us, and only an outsider like him could fix it. Then the economy went south. In response, the campaign released Romney 4.0, the successful businessman who understood how to create jobs. At his announcement that he was withdrawing from the 2008 race, Romney 5.0, the across-the-boards, no surrender, ideological conservative was introduced and then quickly pulled from the shelves. This most recent version, Romney 6.0, looks to be some amalgam of 2.0 and 4.0.
Now I am not one of those people who thinks that politicians should never change. Not every change of opinion is a flip-flop in the cynical sense. Some politicians, no doubt Mr. Romney among them, change their minds about things out of principle and not simply out of some perceived partisan advantage. (I, for one, applaud Mr. Romney's move into the pro-life camp). Still, the frequency of his metamorphoses has raised questions about his sincerity. Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican and former chair of Mr. Romney's 2008 campaign, recently said that "Mr. Romney had a chance to create new appeal if he could present himself as genuine and not as someone chasing voters far to the right."
The difficulty with this proposed strategy is that it invites yet another metamorphosis. At what point does Mr. Romney become the New Coke of American politics? And why is it that political operatives are always recommending that people "present" themselves as genuine? Why not simply be genuine? The thing that a lot of folks fail to understand about Ronald Reagan, including many G.O.P candidates, is that voters liked Reagan in part because he never pretended to be anything other than what he was. Tip O'Neill, as well as Bill Buckley, would have told you that.
I am not saying that Mr. Romney doesn’t know who he is. I am simply saying that voters definitely do not know who he is and that is probably his fault or at least the fault of his campaign team. If they want to maintain his embryonic front-runner status, then Romney's people should take off the Bass Pro Shops shirts and let Romney be Romney. The American voter, as Johnny Morris might say, knows the difference between a duck call and a real quack.