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NH and Beyond: Romney's Conundrum

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  January 9, 2012 08:48 AM

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Sometimes, perfection has its price.

Mitt Romney outperformed in Iowa. He’ll likely run laps around his opponents tomorrow in New Hampshire (according to the latest poll, he's 17 points ahead of his closest competitior). And he has - essentially - run a flawless campaign.

But what if that’s not quite as awesome as you might think?

A few months ago, in its annual, education-themed Sunday magazine, The New York Times featured an article about the slipperiness of success. In the piece, heads of schools noted that, often, students who perform best in the long run have to deal with setbacks in the short run.

David Levin - co-founder of the widely-praised KIPP charter schools - kept track of students who came to KIPP in the late 1990s, and was shocked by what he discovered.

Turns out, many of the exceptionally high achievers ultimately dropped out of college. And those who did graduate “were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP.”

Instead, they were the kids who hadn’t just skated through, kids who had been roughed up a little by life, kids who knew how to deal with setbacks.

And so, the article asked, “What if the secret to success is failure?”

This may also be a central question for the Romney campaign. Certainly, Romney has failed in the past - he ran for president in 2008 - and dusted himself off to fight another day.

But he may skate through this primary season almost completely unscathed, rarely having to wrestle with a challenging situation. And that may prove to be a liability in the long run.

Sure, Romney hasn’t ever been the flavor of the month. There was Michele Bachmann, who got pushed off her pedestal by Rick Perry’s entrance into the race. There was Perry, of course, who ran into trouble while counting. There was Herman Cain, whose campaign died of a thousand self-inflicted wounds. And there’s Newt Gingrich, whose past caught up with him - as he must have known it would.

Santorum, too, has started to suffer from huge amounts of money and scrutiny being deployed against him: Has he favored big government programs? Pork-barrel projects? How about his personal rejection of contraception? And his recent rant against making “black peoples’ lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”? (Even though, as Charles Blow has noted, 13.3 million whites receive, for example, food stamps, compared to 8.9 million blacks.)

Time and again, Mitt Romney stands by as his opponents self-destruct.

But there are electoral hurdles lurking - hurdles Romney may not start to truly tackle until he gets to the big leagues - and faces an exceedingly well-financed Obama machine.

In December, for example, pollster Peter Hart - working on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center - asked Republicans to evaluate candidates in different scenarios.

What if Romney needed to get a plane ticket, Hart inquired, but there was only one left?

Voters thought he’d try to pay to get to the front of the line.

And what if Romney was a member of your family, wondered Hart. Who would he be?

“Neighbor." "Cousin." "Twice removed." “The dad who's never home."
Romney hasn't adequately addressed concerns that he’s aloof, overly-removed, or ultra-cautious - because he hasn’t had to. But, for Romney, success may not come without a little failure.

“If Mitt Romney was working at Bain Capital,” former George W. Bush strategist Matt Dowd asked Charlie Rose last week, what would he think of a company whose strategy was to maintain the status quo? A company that said: our four-year plan is not to increase market share, to be ultra cautious, not to make any mistakes, to have the same company in four years that we have today,

“Mitt Romney,” Dowd said, “would probably fire that CEO. That has been Mitt Romney’s campaign."

Getting roughed up in the primaries - as “Comeback Kid” Bill Clinton can attest - often toughens you up for the general election.

So far, of course, perfection has been a winning strategy for Mitt. But sometimes
even perfection has its price.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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