If Mitt Romney really wanted to prove that he has what it takes to be president, he would have picked up the phone last week and placed a call to Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke before President Obama had a chance to reach her.
If Romney really wanted to prove that he stands for traditional American values of decency and fair play, he would have demanded a speedy apology from Rush Limbaugh and beaten to the punch the angry advertisers who refused to continue supporting the obnoxious talk-radio host's disgraceful behavior.
If Romney really wanted to prove that he understands the plight of the little guy, he would have expressed concern for Fluke's well-being and support for her right to speak out on the controversial issue of access to contraception, even though he disagrees with her position. And then he would have held a press conference and called out Limbaugh as the big, fat bully he is for saying those terrible things about Fluke, and let the world know that such disgraceful language has no rightful place in the political sphere.
In other words, he would have shown some guts, character and concern for the First Amendment rights of a citizen who came under unfair attack from an unprincipled jackass who exercises an outsize pernicious influence in the political party that Romney seeks to champion.
Had he done so, Romney would have been walking down the same road that President John F. Kennedy walked down in 1960 when he called Coretta Scott King to express his concern about her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., who was languishing in a jailhouse in Atlanta after being arrested in a civil rights protest.
He would have been walking down the road that Obama did when he called the law student last week (in the words of his spokesman, Jay Carney) "to offer his support, express his disappointment, that she was the subject of an inappropriate personal attack and thank her for exercising her rights as a citizen to speak out on public policy."
Contrast that with Romney's tepid response at a campaign event in Cleveland: "I'll just say this, which is, it's not the language I would have used … I'm focusing on the issues that I think are significant in the country today, and that's why I'm here talking about jobs and Ohio."
That's the response from a craven pretender, unwilling to take on a thuggish talk-radio star out of fear of alienating the lunatics who listen to his program. That's what we would have expected from a crank like Rick Santorum, who has reopened long-settled social issues such as contraception to jump-start his long shot campaign. He actually displayed more courage than Romney by characterizing Limbaugh's assault on Fluke as "absurd."
Romney's response is what we would have expected from a phony intellectual hypocrite like Newt Gingrich, who declined to criticize Limbaugh while denouncing Obama's call to Fluke as "opportunistic."
It's what we might have expected from a crank like Ron Paul, who told an interviewer on CNN, "I think it's a rather silly argument about who's going to get free birth control pills."
This was a missed opportunity for Romney, who says he stands head and shoulders above everyone else who wants to be our next president. He did not need to say he agreed with Fluke, only that he supported her right to say it. He did not need to say that the conservative principles he espouses these days are wrong, only that Limbaugh is a bully who needs to be curbed.
He could have shown us that he is a leader.
Instead he showed us that he is a punk.
Jack White keeps an eye on right-wing politics for The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.