By FRANK BRUNI
That bloodied appendage? The one riddled with holes?
It belongs to Mitt Romney, and we now know that his onetime support for gun control was all that was keeping him from shooting himself in the foot.
Throughout this campaign, he has misfired so repeatedly and phantasmagorically that his wounds make those visited upon Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway at the end of “Bonnie and Clyde” look like paper cuts.
But that’s been noted, and there’s a bigger discussion beyond it. How did someone so politically maladroit — a cardboard cutout crossed with an Etch A Sketch — get this far?
We need to remind ourselves that the alternatives were Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann. And we need to ask whether we now have an electoral process so vacuous, vicious and just plain silly that most people in their right minds wouldn’t go anywhere near it.
It chews up candidates and their families, spits them out and cackles with hyperpartisan glee all the while. Yes, those candidates volunteer for it, but still. The process doesn’t necessarily serve some wondrous purpose of culling the herd and toughening the survivors, as the people invested in it — including those of us in the news media — often like to argue. Maybe it just sours them, befouls the atmosphere in which they operate and encourages voters to tune out.
It encourages would-be candidates, watching from the edge of the battlefield, not to step onto it. Mitch Daniels took a pass. So did Jeb Bush. It’s not certain that either of them, in the final analysis, would have been better than Romney. But it’s beyond doubt that the strafing they and their families would have received, along with the compromises they would have been pressured to make, influenced their decisions.
To what bliss can the person who chooses to run look forward? Relentless tedium, for starters. A candidate typically repeats the same 10 to 25 minutes of remarks at least three times a day in at least two time zones a week for at least 10 months on end, if you count the primaries. To embrace that, he or she has to be a narcissist, an automaton, an ideologue or an idealist of the very highest order. And I don’t think the idealists are exactly overrepresented these days.
A candidate must be craven about asking for money and do it round the clock, because at this point so much of it is required that for all Romney’s sterling connections and platinum panhandling, he’s still apparently coming up short. That may be the scariest story of the season.
Due to the differences between a primary and general-election campaign, a candidate must be willing to waffle, and if he or she gets too accustomed to that, it can lead to moments as mortifying as one on the most recent “60 Minutes.”
Scott Pelley, pressing Romney on which tax loopholes he’d close: “The devil’s in the details.”
Romney, refusing to provide any: “The devil’s in the details. The angel is in the policy.”
The hell has no end. The 140-character limit of Twitter, the acceleration of the news cycle and the proliferation of proudly biased newscasts have intensified the patrol for gaffes, heightened the hunger for tiffs and tidbits, ratcheted up the invasiveness.
Over recent days I stumbled upon a headline about Romney’s “enlarged prostate” and, separately, a tasteless examination of the contracts that one of his sons had with a gestational surrogate.
There was also chatter about the orange hue of either his tan or his makeup, though I admit to my own ignoble fascination with this. Halloween’s on the horizon. Is Romney pandering for the pumpkin vote?
The zone of privacy around a candidate has vanished, thanks to prying smartphones — poised, yes, to capture important tells, but poised as well to document meaningless ones.
From strategists and pundits comes a daily vivisection: smirk less, laugh more, fewer neckties, tighter pants. Bit by inevitable bit, a candidate surrenders all spontaneity, along with some of his or her authentic self and a certain measure of joy.
President Obama was also on “60 Minutes,” and what I saw as he answered questions about his record wasn’t the audacity of hope. It was the annoyance of being put through these paces and being second-guessed.
Romney’s bleeding has plenty to do with his intrinsic shortcomings and his shortsightedness: how does a man who has harbored presidential ambitions almost since he was a zygote create a paper trail of offshore accounts and tax returns like his?
But I wonder if we’re not seeing the worst possible version of him, and if it isn’t the ugly flower of the process itself. I wonder, too, what the politicians mulling 2016 make of it, and whether, God help us, we’ll be looking at an even worse crop of candidates then.