WASHINGTON — Sometimes in the course of human events, we must ask, as Hemingway did in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” what is that leopard doing at this altitude?
As a candidate, Mitt Romney is awkward, off-putting and hollow, so bad that if he were a Bain company, he would shut himself down.
The billion-dollar Republican campaign should be sweeping the floor with the deflated President Barack Obama after four years of 8 percent-plus unemployment. Yet it is curdling. The little donations have dried up; how long before the big money follows?
We must also ask the Hemingway question about Stuart Stevens, the Hemingway manque running Mitt’s campaign. “The Square and the Flair,” The New Republic dubbed the synthetic candidate and his sentient adviser, who started as Eudora Welty’s paperboy and lived by the Oscar Wilde maxim: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
The 58-year-old Mississippi native has written a sexy political novel, scripts for “Northern Exposure” and Evelyn Waugh-style travel odysseys. He was a consultant for George Clooney on “The Ides of March” and has even written an HBO docudrama about W.’s warrantless domestic spying program, centering on The Times’ decision to publish the article by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau that exposed it.
It’s hard to believe that the self-styled Renaissance Man who wrote this in “Feeding Frenzy” — “But next there was the Fricassee De Homard Breton Au Jus De Viande aux chicons confits au gingembre et citron vert. It was fabulous, contradictory but not conflicting, every taste a surprise” — works for the Tin Man, whose favorite meal is chocolate milk and peanut butter.
Stevens skied 100 miles to the North Pole and biked 450 miles through the Pyrenees. He wrote a piece for Outside magazine about taking steroids for a French bike race. After Oxford and UCLA film school, he fell into politics as an escapade, and he likes to maintain that larky affect.
In 2000, when he worked for W., as New Hampshire Republicans headed to the polls on Primary Day to deliver a near-fatal 19-point drubbing of his candidate, Stevens headed out from his hotel carrying skis. Asked by a reporter about his insouciance, he replied that there was nothing he could do at that point.
But his “devil-may-care routine,” as The New Republic calls it, may be wearing thin. This isn’t merely a plotline for some future script.
This is the real deal.
You get the sense that the strategist considers himself cooler than the candidate, that he’s too hip to walk through fire for Mitt and that he lacks confidence that Romney could be a better campaigner. He treats Mitt like a cardboard cutout, never asking him to risk anything or pushing him to be big, bold and inspirational.
Ann Romney is clearly feeling the strain. On Radio Iowa, she ordered whining Republicans: “Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring.” She said Americans should realize “how lucky” they were to have Mitt. She sounded entitled, even as her husband dismissed half the country as entitlement junkies.
An Obama adviser calls the Romney campaign “a study in mismanagement,” while the conservative columnist Peggy Noonan deems it “a rolling calamity.” Yet after Tampa, Romney gave promised bonuses totaling $192,440 to at least nine senior campaign staff members working under Stevens.
Even if voters are inclined to fire the incumbent, they need reassurance about what the replacement would do. Romney has failed to give details where needed, and when he does give details, they contradict his own past stands.
He finally released a tax return from 2011, showing he paid a higher tax rate than required. The press immediately unearthed a Romney quote from July: “If I had paid more than are legally due, I don’t think I’d be qualified to become president.” Case closed.
Aside from Mitt’s penchant for being a piñata, the campaign is a moveable feast of missteps: spending money at the wrong time; putting on biographical ads too late; letting the Obama camp define Romney before he defined himself; staging a disastrous foreign trip; fumbling the convention; and somehow neglecting to tell the candidate that there is no longer any such thing as off the record, if there ever was.
Some Republican strategists, watching it slip away, privately complain that Stevens is a poseur and political atheist who is so busy being a dilettante that he forgets the need to actually have faith.
Was the Hollywood dabbler so swept up in the idea of Clint Eastwood’s benediction that he didn’t vet the 82-year-old actor’s script, or wonder about that empty chair?
He doesn’t realize that having Romney stand for nothing and everything is not as good as having Romney say: Follow me, we’re going to go over here.
“If you don’t believe your guy can lead you to a better place,” said one GOP strategist, “it’s hard to get anybody else to believe it.”
Romney said he liked to fire people. But his downfall may be that he does not.
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.