In its continuing search for relevance in the modern age, Newsweek decided to run with a cover story designed not only to be provocative but to hearken back to one of their previously provocative headlines from two decades ago (that, assumably, sold a lot of magazines for them). In case you haven't heard, Newsweek is calling Mitt Romney a "wimp." Actually, they are themselves wimping out, because they don't even directly make this assertion on their cover; they instead speak of the "wimp factor" and then further obscure the charge by using the question format instead of a simple declaration: "Romney: The Wimp Factor -- Is He Just Too Insecure To Be President?" A much stronger headline, and more in keeping with the fifth-grade-playground nature of the insult, would have been: "Romney Is A Wimp And Therefore Will Not Be Elected President." This is but a minor quibble, however, as the article itself does indeed call Romney not only a "wimp" but a "weenie." I would respectfully suggest, however, that another "W word" is far more appropriate in describing Mitt Romney: "weasel."
Using animal names for human insults and praise is, of course, an ancient tradition. The weasel family has members within it who are used for high purposes and low in this fashion, from denoting wealth and royalty (sable, ermine), to playfulness (otter), to outright insult (polecat). Some even have crossover uses, such as denoting both wealth and sexual prowess (mink). One was used, even before the comic book antihero, to represent both vicious fearlessness and the sports teams of the University of Michigan (wolverine). Ironically, there are even two weasel family members that are used as examples of digging out the truth via hard questioning (ferret and badger). One poor member of family Mustelidae even recently got kicked out, forced to form a family of its own, because nobody likes a skunk at the party.
Getting back to weasels, my dictionary informs me that using "weasel" as an insult (a "weasel word") stems from the critter's propensity to suck eggs. No, seriously: "The weasel's reputed habit of sucking the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell superficially intact." This is why weasel words are used "in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position." My dictionary is fairly old, so there was no actual photo of Mitt Romney next to this definition (ahem), but for the life of me I cannot come up with any better description of his candidacy. Indeed, Mitt has been evading and retreating from just about any direct or forthright statements or positions during his entire campaign.
Wimps and weenies shirk a fight. That's the basic definition (although "weenie" leaves a bit of... um... wiggle room, shall we say). If you are challenged and you back down, you are considered to be (again, on that fifth-grade playground) a wimp. Another animal-based insult springs to mind as a synonym (one previously innocently used to refer to cats), but because it is generally considered outside the bounds of polite conversation, we will refrain from being any more specific.
Mitt Romney doesn't really fit the classic wimp definition, as even Newsweek sheepishly concedes (to briefly branch out into ovine reverse anthropomorphism): "[A] wimp lets himself get kicked around, and Romney doesn't exactly do that. He sure didn't during the primaries, when he strafed Rick Perry and carpet-bombed Rick Santorum." Anyone who remembers the primary campaign knows that Romney is no classic "wimp." But then again, neither was George H. W. Bush, the original Newsweek wimp (see: Willie Horton ad). Instead, Romney is a world-class weasel.
Now, almost all politicians have to play the weasel sometimes, whether by occasionally using weasel words in answer to a direct question, or by weaseling out on a promise previously made. Barack Obama is no different, and there are indeed examples of his doing both that one can point to. Flip-flopping (or "evolving") on issues is considered weaselly by some, and Romney certainly has contributed his share during his political career (indeed, it is actually hard to come up with an issue that Romney has not flip-flopped on). But even this isn't what I mean when I call Romney a weasel.
Instead, I'm speaking of a more pure form of the put-down. Call it inherent "weaselishness" or perhaps "weaselitude" (well, maybe not). It all boils down to Romney getting in touch with his inner weasel. Evading and retreating from direct or forthright statements or positions, as Merriam and Webster aptly put it. To put it another way: Mitt refusing to tell the American people what he would do, on any pressing and relevant issue.
The most striking (but by no means only) example of this was Romney's non-position on President Obama's changes to immigration policy for children. After Obama made his announcement, Romney tried to have things both ways. According to Romney, what Obama did was wrong (naturally), and a "President Romney" would much rather have Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform so he could sign it into law. What would Mitt do from "Day One" in office until this wondrous event happened? He wouldn't say. Would he overturn Obama's directive? Mitt was mum. Would he continue the policy until Congress acted? Not going to answer that one, sorry.
This is Mitt's position on issue after issue that comes up in the news. "I've got a secret plan, which will be implemented on Day One, but I'm not going to tell you about it because it might cause somebody somewhere to vote against me." How will Mitt magically cut taxes and end the deficit? We don't know. How will Romney reform the tax code to get rid of all those loopholes? Got me. Will this involve lower mortgage deductions, or reducing the charitable giving write-off? Mitt'll tell you later, after he's elected. Has Mitt used tax-dodging schemes himself? "You people" have all the information you're ever going to get out of him, sorry. What will Romney replace Obamacare with? Dunno. What would he do differently in Afghanistan? Your guess is as good as mine. Mitt's list of such weaseling is a long one.
To be fair to Mitt, Newsweek rather unfairly chose to run its article during the one week when weasel answers are actually required (or at least expected) from Romney -- when he's on foreign soil. He's actually been fairly strictly keeping to the "politics ends at the water's edge" rule in American politics and has not been badmouthing Obama while he's away (instead, he's just been badmouthing his host countries, but that's a separate issue, really). This is admirable, although I did notice that Mitt even weaseled out of this in one way (he gave an interview to an Israeli newspaper before he left, knowing that it would run while he was in Israel, but because the interview was technically conducted in America, Mitt felt unbound by the "stops at the water's edge" constraint, which is pretty downright weaselly).
Mitt Romney, more than any other Republican candidate in the last few decades (even George H. W. Bush, the first Newsweek "wimp"), reminds me of nothing more than an over-handled politician who is terrified about offending his base or any independent voters. Al Gore's "earth tones" spring to mind. Mitt is so cautious on the campaign trail that it goes beyond avoiding risks. He has rather generic praise for the Republican Party line on just about any issue, but when pressed, he cannot say exactly what he would do on pretty much any of them. The one really strong stance Romney took during the primaries (illegal immigrants should be forced into "self-deportation") he has already walked back as much as he thinks he can get away with, without howls of dismay arising from hardline Republicans.
Now, I realize that Newsweek was trying to leverage a previously successful cover headline into a 2012 election story. So they did their best to shoehorn Romney into the "wimp" mold. Romney does indeed show flashes of wimpiness at times, so it wasn't too much of a stretch to do so. They ended their article with:
So far, he wants to sneak into the White House through a side door, without having to do any of the difficult and controversial things candidates have to do. Voters want candidates who are harshly tested and emerge from those tests stronger. Romney is desperate above all else to dodge them -- and when they have come, he's failed.
But that's not precisely the textbook example of a wimp. Especially when there's a much better term to use. Romney wants to weasel his way into the White House through a side door. Romney is desperate above all else to weasel out of tough answers to hard questions.
Mitt Romney may or may not be a wimp, or even a weenie, but one thing is for certain: Mitt Romney is indeed a weasel.
Follow Chris Weigant on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisWeigant