When Romney Talks, Mitt Happens

Republican consultants are trying to figure out what's wrong with little Willard, and their latest diagnosis is that their frontrunner has an "authenticity problem."

"His authentic inauthenticity problem isn't going away. And it's sapping enthusiasm from the rank and file," wrote Jonah Goldberg in the National Review.

But unlike the caricature of a politician who's the bastard child of pollsters and focus groups, bad things happen for Mitt when he ignores his script and orders off the teleprompter. What if Mitt's real problem is that he just can't stop being authentic?

Mitt Romney has the opposite problem that Al Gore Jr. had. When Gore was whipping America into a stupor long in 2000, the vice president's aides assured us that behind closed doors he was one funny dude.

But with Mitt, what we see is what we get. When he's not robotically reciting patriotic texts or doing his laundry in a motel in front of TV cameras, Mitt tends to open his mouth and let a whole lot of awkward pour out.

Let's roll tape:

Remember last July when he sat around a table with jobless Floridians and joked, "I'm also unemployed"? Or the time at the Iowa State Fair last August, when he said, "Corporations are people, my friend" to people who weren't his friends? I don't even say "my friends" to my real friends, but Romney can't get through a stump speech without that rhetorical crutch.

Then there was the time last fall when Romney tried to bet Rick Perry $10,000 that he never supported individual health care mandates in his book. One of Romney's top consultants defended his man by calling the bet "a very human thing to do." You've got a real problem when the guys on your payroll resort to calling you "human" to explain your awkwardness, but Mitt happens.

It happened recently at a NASCAR event when Romney mocked spectators to their faces over their transparent plastic ponchos. "I like those fancy raincoats," he said. "You really sprang for big bucks."

A horrifying inability to make benign small talk is one of Romney's indelible birthmarks. This is the kind of guy who tried to make small talk with a married couple sitting together in a booth, "You know each other?" He'll chat you up as he did one man: "What's happened to your financials the last couple of years?" If you're an older lady leaving a gym, Mitt will ask, "Are your knees, hips doing okay?" To a group of seniors at a town hall, he'll ask, "Anyone here over 100 years old?" Over a fried chicken lunch in Iowa, Romney might try to make small talk with the restaurant owner by referring to his meal as a "product."

This guy puts the "man" in "mannequin." Every time Mitt Romney tries to talk to regular people -- that is, those of us who don't make $20 million a year without knowing how to hit a curveball -- a senior Romney staffer gets a gray hair. Romney's awkward attempts at casual banter were one reason that Republicans thought Rick Perry would solve their problems. Romney's inability to act normal is why his handlers constantly dress him up like a J.C. Penney catalog model.

Yes, Romney has a flip-flop problem, most recently when he took so many sides of the anti-birth control amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri that he ended up saying that he originally opposed the legislation because he thought it did something that it actually did. This is why journalists drink.

You can finesse the flip-flops and deny the contents of your own autobiography, as Mitt and his men have done. You can even whistle past the graveyard of your opposition to the auto bailout on your way to winning the Michigan primary.

But when it comes to the Romney campaign, when the going gets tough, the candidate gets weird. There's a saying in campaigns and comedy that you can't fix stupid. The Romney corollary to that is that you can't fake this kind of strange.

Like Darrell Royal, the former football coach at the University of Texas liked to say, "You got to dance with them what brung you." For all their dreaming of a late entrance by Chris Christie or Jeb Bush, Republicans are stuck with Romney. And no amount of wishing will change him from what he really seems to be: a deeply weird, horribly awkward plutocrat who's not quite sure how to relate to the countrymen whom he so desperately wants to lead.