More polls are suggesting that the Democrats' attempts to cast Mitt Romney as a self-interested, slice-and-dicing wheeler-dealer are gaining ground with swing-state voters, despite the much-ballyhooed reservations of the mayor of the 68th biggest city in the country. This has in turn prompted yet another round of one of the 2012 campaign's favorite games: the hunt for the "real Romney." Veteran campaign prognosticator Charlie Cook leads the way today in diagnosing Romney's "identity crisis":
What makes the [Democrats'] ads effective is that voters know next to nothing about Romney, other than that he is a rich and successful businessman, and perhaps that he is a Mormon. Being quite rich and successful means—and focus groups I’ve watched support the notion—that more than a few voters may be willing to stipulate that Romney is a smart guy and probably knows a lot about the economy. But nothing the Romney campaign has said would give voters a reason to believe that he can be trusted or that Oval Office decisions in a Romney White House would be based on the same values that they want their president to have. The Obama campaign and Priorities USA are more than willing to fill in the blanks...
Romney won the GOP nomination on a very tactical level. He out-fundraised, out-organized, and outmaneuvered his rivals. But even then, his story was never told. All the messaging seemed to be oriented toward selling him as the most conservative person on the planet. Now it’s just about the economy, not about him. Every week, usually on Friday, the Romney campaign launches a new ad, but these never sell him.
In the old days of politics, one of the first stages of campaign advertising was to introduce the candidate to the voters, to build the candidate up as someone worthy of the responsibilities of the job, and to create a real connection between the voters and the candidate. It’s hard to find the kind of advertising these days that makes someone say to themselves, “Wow, what an impressive person. We would be lucky to have them as our leader!” One campaign that did was Obama’s in 2008. Four years ago, Obama connected with voters on a personal level, and he won. Sure, voters were in the mood for change, the economy was awful, and Obama had more money. But he did connect on a personal level.
It isn’t clear when the Romney campaign plans to introduce its candidate to the voters, to have his sons talk about their Dad, or to have Ann Romney talk about her husband. Maybe they plan to hold off until the convention. But if I were running, every day that undecided and independent voters in swing states were getting pounded with ads portraying me as an awful person, I’d think I would want some testimony to contradict it. I’d want to have someone telling those voters what kind of person I am and why I am worthy of their support.
We have been here before. During last winter's primaries, when Romney was struggling to put away formidable foes such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, there were calls for Romney to reveal more of himself and who he "truly was." Around the same time, I was reading the fine biography of Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, who spent several years laboring to get to the bottom of that question -- their book is, after all, called the The Real Romney -- but who were, by their own admission, futile in the quest for that deeper definition. This left me wondering whether the time had come for us all to accept that, when it comes to Willard Mitt Romney, what you see is pretty much what you get:
What if it is hard to divine the deepest recesses of Romney because those recesses simply do not go all that deep?
This is, after all, a man who decided that he was going to devote at least the first half of his adult life to making an enormous pile of money. Even after the Kennedy race, which he later said had only heightened his interest in politics, Romney went right back to Bain Capital, for what would prove to be his most lucrative years of all. It is perhaps uncouth to say so, but does not Romney’s fixation on a line of work that amounted to high-stakes data-crunching and paper-shuffling suggest a rather constricted view of the world and a shallow sense of greater purpose?
Kranish and Helman quote Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s longtime aide, saying of Romney that he is “not a very notional leader. He is more interested in data and what the data mean.” It is, they conclude, a revealing line about Romney. “What he has struggled with, in politics, is exactly who he is, with decoding his political DNA,” they write. “For years, he could just operate in his father’s shadow or avoid those hard questions in the private sector, getting by on brains and leadership alone.” His father, too, was hard to pin down politically, a fact that is often forgotten in the glowing accounts of George Romney. But surely Romney pere’s more forceful and rounded personality had something to do with the fact that the economy in which he made his money was so much more, well, real. This is partly a function of the times in which the men worked—Mitt’s rise happened in the flush of the “greed is good” years. But it’s also a matter of choice. Mitt could have chosen a line of work of which it would be easier to say what he said of his father: “Work was never just a way to make a buck to my dad. There was a calling and purpose to it. It was about making life better for people.”
The constrictions of Romney’s sheltered life go beyond his Monopoly-money loot. His biggest filial rebellion was to sneak back from Stanford to Michigan to visit his sweetheart and eventual wife Ann. At Stanford, he turned against the incipient anti-Vietnam protests before leaving them behind for his missionary stint in France. His marriage to Ann, soon after his return, was literally sheltered—her parents were barred from the religious ceremony inside the Salt Lake temple (though George and Mitt converted not just Ann but her two brothers, to the chagrin of her proudly irreligious father.) As a married couple, the Romneys say they have never seriously argued—Mitt’s reaction against the sparring between his vivacious but querulous parents, according to Kranish and Helman. And as a business partner, Romney kept to himself and his family—no dallying for drinks after work for him. It is often said that Americans like to elect presidents they would like to have a beer with. But what to make of a candidate who has not only never had a beer, but says he has never so much as quarreled with his wife?
Romney’s sheltered existence extended to the most mundane of duties on the home front—Ann spared him having to change any of the messier diapers for their five sons because, he has admitted, “they gave me dry heaves.” Reading this, I thought back to a passage earlier in the book spoken by Romney’s charming mother Lenore, who gave up a Hollywood career to marry George, and later ran unsuccessfully for the Senate herself. “Politics is like washing diapers,” she once said. “You want the baby so much, you don’t mind washing his diapers.” Mitt Romney was spared washing the diapers. Maybe he would be a better politician if he had not spared himself some of the messier work of politics.
Charlie Cook laments that voters know "next to nothing about Romney, other than that he is a rich and successful businessman, and perhaps that he is a Mormon." But really, why do we think that there is all that much more to him? Yes, he was also a governor, for one term, whose main accomplishment was a remarkable law that he is now on the verge of disavowing entirely. Cook wonders why the Romney campaign isn't making more use of its ad describing the time that Romney shut down his company to hunt for an employee's missing daughter, but it's not clear to me that such an episode is as golden as Cook and others think (after all, it is, in its own way, a tale of corporate, noblesse oblige privilege.) Cook imagines that there is a whole new portrait to emerge from family testimonials, but we have little reason to believe such testimonials will be effective -- previous such attempts have included Ann Romney saying that the way to prove Romney is not "stiff" is to "unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out because he is not!" and Josh Romney reminiscing to Iowans about crowding his family into his grandparents "pretty small" $12 million home in La Jolla. This is a family, remember, that thinks pictures of itself roaring around a New England lake on Jet Skis and powerboats will endear it to the average American.
So call off the search, guys. I'm pretty sure that if there were some more appealing, more forthright and empathetic Romney lurking beneath the water's surface, it would have peeked through by now. Instead, all we've gotten is the roar and fumes of the Jet Skis skimming along the top.
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