"Every hero becomes a bore at last," wrote Emerson. It is Mitt Romney's bad luck that he has taxed the patience of the GOP without the pleasure of passing through the hero stage first. He has risen to the top like Budweiser—everyone's second choice, who becomes No. 1 by default because your first choice isn't available.
Republicans would prefer stronger stuff. But Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie aren't running, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry flamed out, and Ronald Reagan is still dead. So GOP voters are holding their noses and going with Romney, for the funniest of reasons: They think he has the best chance of beating President Barack Obama. Follow the logic: Democratic voters will renounce Obama to cast ballots for someone Republicans can just barely stand to vote for themselves? Seems iffy.
On the other hand, what other choice do Republicans have? The three remaining contenders are Newt Gingrich (an egomaniac), Rick Santorum (a monomaniac), and Ron Paul (a plain old maniac, from the conservative perspective).
Faced with this situation, some are making the best of it. Ann Coulter has gone out for Romney as she goes in for every issue, with guns blazing. William McGurn of The Wall Street Journal quotes news clips from 1980, predicting that Jimmy Carter would beat Reagan in a rout. Rush Limbaugh says the conservative alternative to Romney might be … Romney. Good cheerleaders root for the team even when it's hopeless.
But the fans in the bleachers—the GOP rank and file—clearly wish they had a better quarterback. And for those who view politics as a team sport, which is a lot of folks, that's perfectly understandable. Beating the other guys is the name of the game.
To grind the analogy into the dirt some more, right now Republicans are still picking their team roster. But wait until it's settled and the general election commences. Many of those who can't think of anything good to say about Romney, other than that he is not Obama, will soon find that is all the reason they need to say all manner of wonderful things about the Republican nominee come fall.
Still, being disillusioned about a candidate before you vote for him beats being disillusioned about him afterward. The latter, alas, is the more general rule. Just look at Obama: During the 2008 campaign he railed against the excesses of the war on terror—Guantanamo, indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping, military commissions, the Patriot Act. Then he embraced every single one of them. Occasionally you run across a Democrat who stills tries to sell you on the idea that the president can raise the dead and turn water into wine. The vast majority, however, are long past the Obamagasms of 2008.
Democrats certainly aren't unique. When George W. Bush accepted the GOP nomination for president, he told a cheering Republican convention that "big government is not the answer." Then he launched two wars and hiked federal spending 55 percent. While he was in office many Republicans defined "conservatism" as "anything Bush said or did" and "liberalism" as "any criticism of the president." Once he left Washington, though, many of them—particularly in the tea party movement—acknowledged that while his administration was many things, minimalist it emphatically was not.
Bill Clinton promised the most ethical administration in history. He ended up producing one of the most embarrassing. (It's interesting—and too little noted—that so far the Obama administration has produced not one scandal worthy of the name. Operation Fast and Furious and Solyndra don't count— they're the result of bad policy, not a lack of integrity.)
Presidents always disappoint. It's partly their fault, since they routinely overpromise. But that's not the real problem. The real problem is that so many Americans believe the promises, time after time. Like Charlie Brown, they think this time Lucy really won't yank the football away at the last second.
Americans are fooled again and again because they have an inflated sense of what government can do for them, and what government should do for them, which unfortunately diminishes their sense of what they can do for themselves. And politicians encourage this—witness Gingrich's laughable promise to wrestle gasoline prices back to $2.50 a gallon, for example, or Obama's boast (on winning the Democratic nomination in 2008) that "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." Having promised to work miracles, politicians then set out to deliver them. More often than not they create an unholy mess in the process.
It's actually a good thing that Republicans don't view Romney as a man on a white horse with a halo and a pair of wings. On the off chance that he prevails, the public will expect very little. And that's probably what it will get—whether Romney wins or not.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this column originally appeared.