08/23/2012 10:03 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2012

An Insular Romney Struggles With His Surprisingly Heartfelt Veep Pick After Striking Out Internationally

Mitt Romney has very big problems as he contemplates rolling into Florida's hurricane country for an even windier than usual GOP confab. Frankly, he's fortunate that he's not already set to lose by a landslide.

For all Romney's complaints about the tone of the campaign, he really has done nothing to elevate. In fact, quite the opposite. That's the only reason he won the nomination, even against that entertaining yet bizarre crew we saw in the primaries.

His international tour was a joke and a bust, an exercise in ugly Americanism in London (where he doubted his hosts' ability to put on the smashing Olympics that were about to result) and pandering to the right-wing of the Likud in Israel (where he pledged to adopt the current Israeli government's highest national security priority as America's), as well as the hoariest anti-Russian cliches of the Cold War in Poland.

He has nothing of any seriousness to say about either end of America's big geopolitical pivot -- the US is shifting from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with Asia and the Pacific -- from the Gulf crisis, which he exacerbates with his urgings for war with Iran even as opposition solidifies among national security leaders and professionals in Israel, to the South China Sea and now East China Sea crises. Where he wants the US to, you know, "get tough." (And? And crickets.)

As for Paul Ryan, his would-be partner a heartbeat from the Oval Office? He's an Ayn Rand character in search of a novel, his John Galt-oriented fiscal plans as fictitious as his heroine's.

Romney tries so hard to hide who he is behind his trademark chameleon nature that he reveals himself all the more dramatically when his true nature does poke through the bland facade ... the Iowa Fair comments about corporations as people, the blithe $10K bet (in the midst of a presidential debate!) with ex-poor kid Rick Perry, the heated declarations that criticism of Bain Capital or any of Wall Street's practices in any way equals socialism.

This guy should be at least 10 points behind and falling. Yet, though there have been polls in which he is close to that, and he may yet lose big, he still hangs in.

There are several problems for Obama, all of which he should be able to surmount, absent a massive geopolitical X factor.

Because, looked at from another angle, he should have been trailing Romney all along. Only Romney's obvious inauthenticity and radical capitalist agenda have prevented that, and as a result, he's never had anything like a real lead.

America is still decidedly not well. Obama himself has been decidedly imperfect. The country is increasingly divided on hyper-partisan lines, with a big built-in vote for anyone against Obama. And huge amounts of money are mobilizing against Obama.

In a way, it's like 1896 all over again, when the super-rich of the Gilded Age, organized by Mark Hanna, flocked to the banner of William McKinley.

Something like that is happening now with the unlimited super PAC phenomenon and big gains for Romney fundraising, with some of the forces of hyper-capital mobilizing against Barack Obama as if he were William Jennings Bryan reborn, crossed with Che Guevara. Which, of course, he is anything but.

So Romney still looks competitive. But the chimes of impending disaster are sounding if one cares to hear.

The new Romney/Ryan ticket is scrambling to get the campaign back on track after a well-orchestrated if not well-conceived announcement and roll-out of the young congressman as would-be vice president.

A campaign which was supposed to be about the shortcomings of Obama, and the rocky and very uneven economic recovery, is instead mostly about Ryan's very controversial budget plan and his Ayn Rand-inspired views of the role for government, as well as about Romney's still very murky wealth. And of course Romney keeps getting tripped up as leader of a party which has become profoundly anti-Enlightenment.

The new Romney-Ryan Republican ticket, seeing the running mate pick turning the election into a matter of ideology rather than efficacy, is busy complaining that Obama and Joe Biden are conducting a negative campaign.

Lots of luck with that, boys.

Of course, it's only annoying if you have no taste for irony. Romney won his nomination with a relentlessly negative campaign, one that was frequently fact-free.

But, despite my taste for irony, I don't find it all that amusing. But then, I got bored with Romney a few years ago.

When I met Romney in the middle of the last decade, I was given an odd sort of "reassurance." Don't worry, I was told, he doesn't really believe what he's saying.

To which the obvious reply is: Which time?

Romney has executed so many major shifts in his political message and positioning -- remember that he ran as the social conservative candidate in 2008, after running to Ted Kennedy's left on gay rights in a 1994 Senate race -- that it's easy to conclude that he believes in nothing. Aside from the prospect of his own success, that is. But based on what he talks about, and doesn't talk about, I suspect he actually believes strongly in two belief systems: Radical capitalism, of the financial engineering variety, and Mormonism. In addition to his Bain Capital exploits in adventure capitalism -- he was largely a corporate takeover artist, not a venture capitalist -- he was a bishop in the Mormon Church, and apparently took it quite seriously, using his great wealth throughout to build the Mormon organization, for which he gets big tax breaks.

This may be why Romney appears so comfortable campaigning with Ryan, a kindred spirit with regard to laissez faire/anything goes business and judging people's private lives.

Ryan is also a kindred spirit in his silly attempts to run from his own reality.

While Romney persisted in trying to have it both ways on the Ryan plan, Ryan persists in trying to pretend he's not the acolyte of Ayn Rand he proclaimed himself to be just a few short years ago. It's a fool's errand, as the record is too clear.

With his pick of running mate coming under the predictable heavy fire and provoking a not surprising change of focus from the economy to Ryan's highly controversial plans to rework the federal budget and the government along the lines advocated by his favorite libertarian novelist, Romney reacted with a new speech attacking Obama for supposedly being the most negative campaigner he can recall.

Obama's campaign, says Romney, is all about "division and attack and hatred."

Romney seems to forget, or hopes that everyone else does, his own campaign.

The only reason he is the Republican nominee is that he and his mega-bucks allies gunned down all opposition with all-negative/all-the-time campaign ads.

Speaking of guns, it was in the shadow of the decommissioned battleship USS Wisconsin, now a museum ship in Norfolk, Virginia, where the Romney-Ryan ticket was unveiled.

Ryan never served in the US Armed Forces, making his connection with an old Navy battleship all the more attenuated. And Romney, as I may have mentioned on one or two occasions, not only never wore the uniform but toughed out the Vietnam War -- which he vociferously espoused -- as a Mormon missionary in France.

(France still has virtually no Mormon church members, some 40 years after Romney's missionary work there. Not at all surprisingly, as it's hard to think of a country less amenable to the teachings of one of the most conservative religions around.)

It's now clearly the official fashion to skip straight ahead to super-hawkishness without even a semblance of military service.

But that's not the main reason why the Obama team has to like the Ryan pick and what it and the direction of the Romney campaign mean for the drive this fall.

Ryan made himself the economic and fiscal apostle of the new House Republican majority, now at the helm of the most unpopular Congress in history, advocating big tax cuts for the rich, more cuts in the social safety net and education, and privatization of Medicare.

This presents what might be described as a "target-rich environment."

Ryan, not incidentally, will run simultaneously for re-election to his House seat in Wisconsin's 1st district, as allowed by state law.

Chalk one up for Ryan's common sense.

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