Any seasoned politico will tell you that the American voter is hard to pin-down: sometimes he wants virtue in a candidate, sometimes glamor, sometimes innocuousness. Like the child of a land of infinite variety that he is, he tires easily and unpredictably of one political goody, and is wont to pass on with appalling fickleness to a new idol.
Perhaps the most interesting--and poignant--of his occasional fancies is his sudden embracing, in times of crisis, of that seeming contradiction-in-terms, the naive politician. As her writers have known for a long time, American's dreams are more confused and tormented than her people will admit to themselves; from time to time the vision of a brave, fair hero "out of the West," come to deliver her from her own dreams, seizes her with a fury.
The political Lochinvar has most recently appeared in the form of clean-shaven, well-dressed, steely-eyed George Romney, erstwhile president of American Motors and now Republican candidate for the governorship of Michigan. In the drama and suddenness of his rise to political prominence, he is in the great American tradition of Woodrow Wilson, Wendell Willkie and Dwight Eisenhower.
Like Wilson, Romney has been attracted to politics by a feeling that America's social and political structure needs overhauling. Specifically, Romney is alarmed by the domination of American life by small numbers of large, unresponsive, and often irresponsible agglomerations of power. He has suggested--disinterestedly--the break-up of Ford and General Motors, and he has been sharply critical of the major political parties for allowing big unions or big business to influence them unduly.
Like Willkie, Romney has achieved his reputation in business, and has impresed potential voters by his brashness and pugnacity. But the real similarity between Romney and "the barefoot boy of Wall Street" lies deeper: both have something of the "dreamy kid" about them, an almost childlike faith in an ultimate reconciliation. Romney's call to "return American politics to the American people," like Willkie's plea for "One World," indicates a deep-felt desire to widen the boundaries of "the possible" in politics.
What is most striking about Romney as a Lochinvar-figure, however, is that, like Eisenhower, he has achieved political prominence in a time of no great domestic crisis. In this sense, Romney's emergence as a national figure has come less because it answers a real national need than because the internal state of American politics renders it very opportune. Republican leaders are running their party on "stop-gap" measures. As was pointed out in a special study of the Republican Party published last week, the party is in complete organizational disorder, from the understaffed precinct offices to the ideological chaos at the top. In effect, Romney's most immediate appeal is not to the people, but to the Republican leaders; it is they who must yearn most for the radical simplification of politics a Lochinvar-figure promises.
In Michigan, it is a different story. There it is obvious that Romney could be a boon as governor. The State's endemic financial crisis calls for a governor of more stature than the incumbent, John Swainson, and Romney can legitimately pledge himself to a platform of reconstruction. It is also obvious that a regeneration of the state will require some kind of political reconciliation; for simple partisanship has long since ceased to work in the state's interests.
But "Romney for President"? If he gets the Republican nomination, it will likely be by default, or because he has done what Rockefeller has failed to do: made a success as governor. But it will probably not be just because he has irresistibly captured the American imagination. Though no-one liked to say so, everybody got a little tired of Eisenhower after a while. The day of the conquering hero may be past, and the voice of the Lochinvar may be no more heard in the land.