If you break into Mitt Romney’s house and he catches you, you’re probably still okay until he starts laughing. Once he starts laughing, don’t turn your back to him, because it means he’s about to brain you with a bookend. The bookend depicts a child feeding a horse, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that Romney got into a spat with fellow lifelike simulacrum Rick Perry last night, and by all accounts it was great for him. He passed through the first few Romney responses to conflict—smiling, nonplussed smiling, chagrined smiling—and then he introduced an entirely new stage: indignant chuckling. Then he scolded the hell out of Rick Perry, and everyone cheered. Romney was visibly pleased, like the moment when your stepfather first tells you you’re pretty. Video after the jump and an advertisement for exploding vodka.
Romney and Perry were ostensibly arguing over illegal immigration, specifically the illegal immigrants who worked on a yard crew that Romney hired a few years ago. Really, they were arguing over whether Perry can start talking whenever he wants. Perry took pro and Romney went con, and the two advanced their positions simultaneously until Romney lost his temper. “You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking,” he said. “And I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you got to let both people speak.”
Cheering, applause. Romney’s burn was maybe not airtight—when you become President of the United States, who exactly is the other person?—but it still brought some heat. From a candidate who has consistently displayed the intensity of a cobb salad, it felt like breakthrough proof of interiority. Romney is the right man for the wrong GOP. Besides John Huntsman, who is consistently asked for identification when he arrives at debates, he is clearly the least insane Republican candidate. Unfortunately, he is pursuing the nomination of the most insane Republican Party.
Thanks to the Tea Party, the GOP is deeply committed to ideology. An ideology is like an idea that you don’t think about. You yell about it, and the contemporary Republican Party is totally into yelling. Romney, meanwhile, is a relic of the old style. His country club approach to disagreement is surely preferable to Perry’s smirking interruptions or Bachmann’s pathological fact-making, but it’s not, you know, fiery. America is falling to socialism. This could be our last presidential election. We need someone who’s going to take our country back, not convince them to give it to us.
“Us” and “them” remain undefined terms for this brave America, but they are established jargon in the Republican Party. As with Perry’s accusation that Mitt secretly loves health care reform, the suspicion is that Romney’s calm demeanor proves he is a moderate. It’s not so much that the Republican base thinks extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; it’s that extremism is defense of liberty. Romney is Gatorade to the rest of the party’s Four Loko. He is not sufficiently extreme.
So it was rad to see him get pissed. He still moves and speaks like his desire to become President is a side effect of his Asperger’s Syndome, but at least we know there’s somebody in there. Act enough like Mitt Romney isn’t talking, and he will finally remind you that he is. First he will put his hand on your shoulder, like you are his son, and then he will tell you that your behavior is not in line with your ambitions, like you are his son. And if there’s one thing Republican voters like, it’s Dad.
Irony: if Mitt Romney does win the nomination, he will face one of the more emotionally controlled Presidents in recent memory. Romney’s problem is the same one that dogged Barack Obama through the Democratic primaries in 2008, and a general between the two men will likely be a race to see who can debate with the most respectful attention. That sounds like a good thing to me, and it’s funny that it could happen at a moment when our discourse has become violent and shrill.
I like Mitt Romney. He is less evidently insane than the other Republican candidates, and although he is less likable than Black Walnut, he is also less likely to provoke frightened laughter. Romney’s weird angry laughter is a good sign. It means the weirdly angry Republican Party might start to trust him, and with that find themselves lured back into civility.