Don’t get me wrong. I liked Mitt Romney as a candidate. He was personable, competent, scandal-free and, above all, offered a compelling alternative to the left-tilting coterie of Barack Obama.
But you had to notice, He is very buttoned down, very corporate, very achievement-oriented. In other words, he entered the campaign with a huge problem. America is not as serious as it used to be, and the conventional WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) persona, although deeply rooted in our culture, is a much harder sell these days.
And it isn’t just because of increased ethnic diversity. The WASP archetype has been running into problems on the political front for quite some time. The accomplished, proper Thomas Dewey (derided as the man on the wedding cake) went down to defeat in 1948, beaten by the populist Harry Truman, who waged a classic class warfare campaign against him. The aristocratic Henry Cabot Lodge fell before Irish charmer JFK during the famous Massachusetts Senate campaign of 1952. And, of course, Kennedy went on to defeat the more middle class, earnest Richard Nixon in 1960. It’s paradoxical, contradictory and rather unfair. But the WASP mystique- based on differing combinations of pedigree, achievement, rooted family trees, sobriety, hard work, thrift and understatement- carries a high risk of failure in today’s celebrity culture.
Set aside the exotic Mormon background, and all of a sudden Mitt Romney looks like a lot of other buttoned-down WASP politicians who have been taking their hits politically: Dewey, Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton, while technically a WASP, was a Southerner, which is a distinct sub-species. At any rate, he embodied coolness and rode the demographic wave of the baby boomers. George W. Bush, a WASP aristocrat if there ever was one, camouflaged his roots with a Texas twang and good ol’ boy mannerisms. Barack Obama, who is after all half-WASP, campaigned as the epitome of what was young, hip, cerebral and urban. The more conventional John McCain never had a chance.
I don’t want to overstate the case. Ethnicity and style are just factors in elections. But a lot of bitterly disappointed conservatives need to remember that intangibles, often subjective and occasionally silly, do have their impact. It doesn’t mean the republic is ending, or that the GOP is doomed to perpetual impotence because of demographic trends. (Anyone reading Twitter sees these memes daily now. They forget that Roosevelt and Johnson, running on classic Big Government platforms, captured huge majorities of an electorate that was mostly white.) It does mean that we need to think long and hard before choosing another standard bearer with that conventional, WASPy, GOP establishment persona. After all, the battle against statism and free stuff is hard enough.