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.

Comments

Liam Richardson | 3/21/2011 - 4:43pm
Mitt was *not* a good governor of Massachusetts.

He was, I am happy to note, not venal, corrupt or self-serving. Good. But his management style was to pander, and to avoid hard decisions if he could defer them. His record on infrastructure was awful, and we are still paying the price for his deferred-expenses approach. He spent the second half of his term running for president, and his diffidence to state matters was astounding.

Mitt is a consultant - a salesman more than someone who managed a proper non-parasitic business. He would be a disaster as a president.

Anonymous | 3/21/2011 - 11:11am
All politicans "change" and play to the moment.  Thus Pres. Obama has morphed from the great Liberal hope into a cautious, pragmatic, prevaricating Eisenhower Republican (in the words of David Brooks).  Romney's problem is that these changes have been a step behind the moment: thus his social conservative iteration came at a time of Bush/culture conservative fatigue (and most Americans seemed to want a warm, fuzzy moment to make them forget it all), and now his financial-biz wizard iteration in light of Romney-care seems off the mark as well.  Unfortunately for Republcians, as the field currently stands, the nomination is Romney's to lost, but there is little palpable enthusiasm among any constituencies in the party. Lucky Obama...so far.

Run, Mitch, Run!!
Jeffrey Connors | 3/19/2011 - 4:18pm
Oh, Ed, you're right.  I forgot about Newt....  How to characterize that one...?
ed gleason | 3/19/2011 - 3:25pm
And Jeff didn't even mention Gingrich. which shows what a merciful guy Jeff is.  :o)
Jeffrey Connors | 3/19/2011 - 3:12pm

The real person Mitt Romney is will never be appreciated in the South, especially if Huckabee is in the race.

The fact of the matter is, if Mitt Romney had been an evangelical, he would have won the Republican nomination in 2008 in a cakewalk, despite the documented history of flip-flops. He would have won it going away.

Evangelicals, particularly those in the South, simply will not accept a Mormon any more than they would a Catholic. In Mitt’s case, the suspicion may not be entirely unjustified. He did not run like Kennedy did in 1960. He ran as if he wanted a place at the theocratic table, and he was actually a bishop at one time.   The Southern Republicans didn't go for it.  Glenn Beck has been working his darnedest to make sure it'll be different in 2012, but I don't think it will be.
Just a side note to the Catholic neo-cons and Catholic Tea Party-at-Prayer types of the world...  I remember when Pat Buchanan came flying out of New Hampshire with a primary win in 1996 only to land with a thud in Bob Jones’ South Carolina. Buchanan, a Catholic, was everything the Christian Coalition could ever ask for in terms of a socially conservative candidate, but it didn’t matter. They broke for Bob Dole, of all people. As we saw a decade later in the supposedly "New South" with your candidate Sam Brownback, the evangelicals are just never going to get behind your guy. Ever. Not him, or Bobby Jindal, or any of the other ones you want to trot out there. They aren’t. Understand? Especially if he’s viewed as an apostate like Brownback was. They are not going to go for a Catholic any more than they will for a Mormon, no matter how conservative he is on social issues. Drop these pretensions to a partnership.  Get on board with Catholic social thought and drop this strange attempt at synthesizing Catholic ethics with a philosophy that owes more to Ayn Rand's atheistic objectivism than it does to anything in the history of Catholic thought. 

Consider the Tea Party's intellectual heroes:

Friedrich Hayek - An apostate from the Catholic faith.

Glenn Beck - An apostate from the catholic faith.

Sarah Palin - An apostate from the Catholic faith.

'Nuff said.
ed gleason | 3/19/2011 - 2:27pm
Fr Matt Malone SJ, and Jeff Conners have each sent a torpedo into the floundering  Romney campaign ship. Good aim and I say it was a mercy/coup de grace shot. No need to hunt down the other GOP campaign ships though, they all  seem to be way off course by the ineptitude of their floundering captains  
david power | 3/18/2011 - 7:25pm
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned.
david power | 3/18/2011 - 7:18pm
Fr Matt,

Thank you for this reflection on Mitt Romney. It is obvious that your vocation is going in the right direction.How much glory goes to God by Jesuits knocking politicians(republicans!)?The angels in heaven could not count it I am sure. Have you nothing better to do with your time than to fret about evil republicans? Could you not just write peans  to democrats? At least it would give us a false sense of God's grace pouring out of every corner. 

AMDG    
Jeffrey Connors | 3/18/2011 - 6:01pm
Years ago, shortly after Romney was defeated in his senatorial bid vs. Ted Kennedy, I was in my auto mechanic’s shop when I ran into an old schoolmate of mine. At the time, "Bob" was a young Republican political operative who had run Romney’s election campaign against Kennedy. We talked a bit about the race, and I expressed my surprise that as a Mormon, Romney had run for the Senate with a Pro-Choice position. He was trying to unseat Ted Kennedy using the Bill Weld, libertarian, socially-liberal-fiscally-conservative type of gambit. Bob told me bluntly, “No candidate with a Pro-Life stance could ever possibly win a Senate race in Massachusetts.” I remember thinking to myself, “That’s probably true, but on the other hand, if you run a Democrat against a Democrat, the Democrat is going to win every time.”

Not to be overly harsh, but I consider Romney a carpetbagger, an opportunist, a flip-flopper, and a corporate downsizing shill. He didn’t look at Massachusetts as much more than a stepping stone in his larger ambitions, and is now making hay out of ridiculing it. 

Consider a couple of things about Mitt… He did his missionary work in France and has nothing but contempt and ridicule for France. He did his gubernatorial stint in Massachussetts and has nothing but contempt and ridicule for Massachussetts. He had a healthcare plan virtually identical to the so-called "Obamacare" and now has nothing but contempt and ridicule for it. A typical pump-and-dump corporate suit. I hope he gets whipped in 2012 like a rented mule (with all due apologies to mules).