Washington is fundamentally broken. It cannot deliver what the public demands: health care coverage for all, energy independence, good schools. And we’re not going to change Washington by handing more power to the same-old people already there. Hillary Clinton says she has experience, but that’s not what the voters want. They want someone who can bring real change to the nation’s capital.
Is that Barack Obama campaigning in New Hampshire? No, it’s Mitt Romney. At an “Ask Mitt Anything” meeting on Saturday morning in Derry, Romney was channeling the Democratic victor in Iowa. After finishing second in Iowa, where he had invested so much political and actual capital, Romney, good businessman that he is, took stock of the results and saw that the political market is demanding not experience but change. So he has recalibrated his sales campaign. “The message I read into” the Iowa results, he told the assembled in Derry, is that Hillary Clinton and John McCain were “handily rejected by people with messages of change.” In that category he included Mike Huckabee, the GOP winner of Iowa, Obama, the Democratic winner, and…himself. Though Romney had finished 9 points behind Huckabee, he was claiming he had not been spurned by the voters and was a fellow rider of that change wave.
This is rather imaginative bookkeeping. But you can’t blame a CEO for trying. And Romney appears to be in a tight (and bitter) race with McCain in New Hampshire. So he’s attempting to hijack the Obama magic and discredit McCain as just another do-nothing Washingtonian.
At the Derry event, Romney stood near a giant sign proclaiming “Washington Is Broken” and unveiled a to-do list for the U.S. government. It included almost every idea that any candidate has proposed during this campaign: protect America, end illegal immigration, reduce taxes, cut pork, provide health insurance for everyone, end dependence on foreign oil, grow the economy, fix Social Security, put people ahead of “selfish interest.” He was covering all the bases. And he discussed each as if he were conducting a PowerPoint presentation. Romney also noted that much of this would not be possible unless “we get the lobbyists off the shoulders” of the legislators. With this remark, not only was he swiping Obama’s message, he was also shoplifting McCain’s and John Edwards’. Talk about a hostile takeover.
What was the difference, then, between him and Obama? It’s not the Iraq war—though he supports it, and Obama has called for ending it. Romney hardly referred to the war at all. He devoted much more time to praising his record in the private sector (and he had brought the founding CEO of Staples along to attest to Romney’s business acumen). Romney argued that Obama has “never done it”—when it comes to “change”—and that he (Romney) has, as both a venture capitalist and as a governor. If you want a true agent of change, Romney was saying, I’m your executive.
The crowd at the event—respectable but not overwhelming in size—was somewhat enthusiastic about the fellow who used to be governor next door in Massachusetts. But Romney came across as only a so-so candidate. When a woman in the audience mentioned that her brother had suffered a serious injury playing rugby and asked about stem cell research, Romney said nothing to acknowledge her family’s tragedy. He launched into a canned response about relying on adult stem cells for medical research. This reply caused one of his fans in the conservative media to cringe. When it comes to presenting a Washington-stinks/we-need-change message, Romney can get away with intellectual property theft. But he does not inspire or arouse as Obama does. He can alter the packaging, not the product.
A few miles down the road, Mike Huckabee appeared before a jam-packed auditorium of several hundred people at the Londonderry Middle School. Supposedly, he’s not in the hunt in New Hampshire, due to the state’s lack of evangelicals. But his supporters expressed far more enthusiasm than Romney’s. And his backers are a curious lot. I found people in the room who said they had voted for Howard Dean in 2004 and now we’re hot for Huckabee. Some said they were deciding between Huckabee and Obama. Several were died-in-the-wool social conservatives who explained they were supporting Huckabee because of “faith.”
Given that he’s not part of the death-cage-match transpiring between Romney and McCain—who each desperately need a win in the Granite State and sit atop the polls here—Huckabee was free to mount a rather unusual event, which was first organized as a fundraiser for local charities. After a high school band played R&Bish jazz tunes, Huckabee delivered a short speech, full of one-liners, about the “greatness” of America: that is, neighbors helping neighbors. Millions of Americans go to bed each night hungry, he said. These people should be assisted by their fellow citizens. And if Americans would meet this challenge, then there would be no need for government intervention. He went on about the wonders of the Declaration of Independence and New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” motto.
It was a sermon. He said nothing about his campaign, nothing about his win in Iowa, nothing about the election to come in New Hampshire. He asked no one to vote for him or to help his campaign. Then actor Chuck Norris, his No. 1 celebrity backer, spoke for about as long as Huckabee had. Unlike Huckabee, Norris discussed the Iraq War at length, though mostly he described his own trips to Iraq to visit with soldiers. “They tell me we’re going to win this war,” Norris said, prompting applause. Then Huckabee and Norris donated a box of soccer balls to a local group that sends supplies to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. (The soccer balls will be handed out by American soldiers to Iraqi kids to earn good will for the Americans.)
Huckabee next told a long story about an Arkansas school teacher who once removed all the desks from her classroom. She asked her students what they had to do to earn their desks. Get good grades? the students said. No, the teacher replied. Behave well? No—and there would be no desks until they came up with the right answer. Well, her students sat on the floor for the entire day. And shortly before school was to let out—and by now television news camera crews were on site—she opened the door to the classroom and in walked 27 veterans, each carrying a desk. The teacher told her students, you don’t have to earn your desk because these guys already have earned that desk for you.
The folks in front of Huckabee hung on each word as he recounted this tale. Afterward, he and Norris unfurled a long banner thanking two older veterans who were in the room. The crowd applauded loudly. No policy, no politics. Huckabee had served up faith, family, and patriotism. Would this win over the undecided voters in the room? There was no way of knowing. But he sure went over well. After the event finished, I heard several people saying how “nice” Huckabee seemed. And he looked rather friendly in that red sweater.
Back to the mudwrestle. An hour’s drive away, in Peterborough, McCain was holding a town hall meeting, where he again cited his experience on national security matters and claimed progress was under way in Iraq. After working a crowd covered with red, white and blue confetti, McCain took questions from reporters (which Romney and Huckabee would not), and I asked him what he thought about Romney comparing him to Hillary Clinton. “I can’t respond to that,” he said. But McCain also tried to wave the change flag. “I’m responsible for the biggest change that has saved American lives,” he said, referring to his criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war. In McCain’s view, his criticism led to the surge, and the surge is succeeding and saving the lives of U.S. soldiers. “I’m an agent of change,” he declared.
That’s what they all are saying these days: Clinton, Romney, McCain. Obama-ism is catching on. But that’s probably better news for the source than for the copycats.