20 years ago, The Atlantic Magazine asked of the first President Bush: "Can George Bush Think?" The same question must be asked of Mitt Romney. While both men have shown competence in key areas, both have been handicapped by a lack of vision and vast blind spots that come across as inexplicable, if not downright bizarre.
Perhaps the roughest part of the 1992 article for Bush I was when the author, Richard Brookhiser, quoted one of the president's own staffers as saying:
"Can he think in an organized, linear way about problems? Can he pose thesis and antithesis, and draw a synthesis? No. He is the least contemplative man I've ever met."The author's main point was that, rather than having a consistent ideology -- what Bush dismissively called "the vision thing" -- his style was "dealing with what he finds on his desk every day when he gets in" -- what another Atlantic writer, Richard Schneider termed "The In-Box President".
It is hard to think of another major party presidential nominee worse at grasping the big picture than Mitt Romney. I'm not sure it's sufficient to consider his record of flip-flopping merely sneaky and dishonest. It is so blatant, such a huge elephant in the room, that it borders on the pathological.
We -- especially the media -- have to ask of the man who's just a few percentage points shy of seizing the White House: Does he have any vision whatsoever? Or is he somehow incapable of thinking beyond the immediate moment when he is pandering to an audience, forgetting that he previously held the opposite viewpoint -- and not conceiving or caring that he may need to take a different position in the future?
Everyone else, across the political spectrum, can tell when he's flip-flopping. Can he somehow not see it? Could he possibly see what he says and does yesterday, today and tomorrow as completely different and unrelated realities, like the victim of some sort of dissociative disorder?
The other day, Newt Gingrich, in full marketing mode, told the Washington Post that Romney "is a manager who sticks with his strategies and implements them relentlessly." But Newt, the unthinking man's "intellectual", here demonstrates only his own shallowness. To the contrary, most of the time, Mitt is all tactics and no strategy.
Facing an audience of pro-Israel donors? Insult the Palestinians (and throw in Chile, Ecuador and Mexico for good measure) -- you'll never need them in the future. Want to attack Obama on a wedge issue? Go after him for granting states some flexibility on welfare, ignoring that these changes were mostly requested by Republican governors and that Romney himself asked for similar exemptions when he was Massachusetts governor. (And please forget the core conservative, Reaganesque value of federalism, i.e., devolving federal powers to the states). Want a running mate who makes the base happy? Choose Paul Ryan for his ultraconservative budget, even though you recently opposed it and you'll have to make distinctions between "his" budget and "yours."
You don't need a college degree to see that all of these waffles don't add up to a full breakfast. But you may be tempted to ask: How could Romney have become filthy rich in venture capital if he's so incapable of strategic thinking?
My answer is that I fear Mitt suffers from the same cognitive disability afflicting all those Wall Street traders and corporate shysters whose alleged brilliance and foresight brought us the Great Recession. Sure they can and do focus like lasers on building their own piles of money. But do they do it from long-term vision and strategy, or from a sort of opportunistic instinct, a ruthless willingness and ability to grab money wherever they can based on short term tactical moves?
It's precisely their contempt for the long-term that is both noteworthy and disturbing. If an Enron or a Lehman Brothers -- or the world economy -- collapses, no biggie, as long as you've built your own nest egg and escaped from the collapsing building in time. It's the triumph of the greedy individual over all the rest of society and posterity.
How would someone with this perspective govern as president? With self-preservation and enrichment his only compass, Mitt would, as always, go where he sees the greatest political rewards of the moment. He would continue to follow every knee jerk of his ultraconservative base, on whom he depends for his political survival, until it led to some major blow ups, causing a reaction in the other direction -- and repeat. Expect a lot of muddling through and zig-zagging, but with President Romney following the lead of the tea party whenever he can get away with it.
Such is the dead end to which today's GOP has marched, and to which they will take the rest of us if we let it happen. The Republican hatred of government, indebtedness to corporate America, enforcement of ideological rigidity and general War on Brains have all led to a presidential nominee with no vision whatsoever beyond giving multinational corporations and millionaires everything they want.
I don't know to what extent Mitt can think, but the rest of us better snap out of it and go door-knocking -- before we are all stuck with the Zombie Administration.