The Heart Of The Matter

by Alec MacGillis | March 2, 2012

I’ve been busy working on a piece for the print magazine this week and so haven’t been able to post as much on the latest twists and turns of the Republican race as much as I’d like, but there is something I wanted to weigh in on: the matter of Mitt Romney’s heart.

In Bexley, Ohio, a voter on Wednesday put this question to Romney: I know you’ve been very successful in business and at the Olympics, but can you show us that you have a heart and love Americans?

What the man was asking, essentially, was for Romney to do what he had once again failed to in his victory speech the night before in Michigan: to reach out to voters in a way that went beyond his bash-Obama, America-the-Beautiful stump speech. Instead, Romney had served up more of the same, though it was arguably delivered in a somewhat punchier form than normal. Most strikingly, he had focused so exclusively on Obama that he had made not a single mention of Rick Santorum, the man who had nearly humiliated him in his home state, nor any mention, oblique or otherwise, of the thousands of Michiganders who had chosen Santorum over him. There remains a huge swath of the Republican electorate that is still resistant to Romney and it’s pretty easy to categorize—it’s people who make less than $100,000 and who tend to be more conservative when it comes to social and cultural issues. You would think that, on a big night like his Michigan win, Romney would feel moved to acknowledge this resistance in some form and work to break it down, to broaden his reach by opening himself up a bit wider.

But no—it was more pabulum about booting out Obama. And when he had another chance in Bexley, this is what he offered up, as reported by the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker:

When one man asked Romney that question at a town hall meeting here Wednesday afternoon, Romney acknowledged that one of the challenges of running for president is projecting humanity to the masses.
“Most people just see you in the debates,” Romney said. “And so we stand there all in our suits, you know, we’re all wearing white shirts, blue suits, uhh, black shoes, and either a red or blue tie. We all stand there looking somewhat alike and get 60 seconds to answer questions like, ‘How do we bring peace to the world?’ ”
“And in settings like that, why, people don’t get to know you very well,” Romney continued. “And in settings like this, with questions like that, you can get to know me a little bit better.”
At that, Romney went about introducing himself, exposing his tender side. “Like the rest of you in this room, by far the most important thing in my life is my wife,” Romney said, noting that he and Ann fell in love young and enjoy a marriage “that is still filled with love.” Romney said the greatest challenge in his life was when Ann was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late 1990s.
Another joy, he said, was watching his five boys become men, and now fathers. “Grandkids are fabulous! You don’t have to change their diapers and they love you. When I turn into my kids’ homes and my grandkids are there, they come running up and give me a big hug. It’s so exciting and I love my 16 grandkids.”
But Romney was sure to note that his love extends beyond his family, saying, “I also care about the community at large and the nation of America and the people of our nation.” He cited his work as a Boston area lay pastor for his Mormon church—he said his religion is “an unusual religion in a number of respects,” including that it does not have a paid ministry.
“It took about 20, 30, 40 hours a week in some weeks,” Romney said, describing his lay pastor duties. “So besides my regular job, I was pastoring people in my congregation—and people of different backgrounds, different nationalities and different circumstances of life.”
Now, Romney said, he wants to use what he’s learned through his life’s work to help the American people.
“If I were a doctor and I saw somebody who was obviously suffering from some condition, I would want to do something to help,” Romney said. “Well, my experience is not in medicine; my experience is in business. And I think that's what America needs right now. … This is a family crisis going on in America, and I think I can help. I can’t solve all the problems, but I can make a difference, and that's why I am in this race.”

What to make of this? First, a quick factual aside: It’s a bit rich for Romney to be making the usual joke about grandparents not having to change diapers given that he is on the record as having refused to change diapers even as a father. But in general, well, this is certainly an improvement—for one thing, by bringing up his work as a Mormon lay pastor, as many have urged him to do, he is conveying that he has, in fact, had encounters with the lived reality of people less fortunate than himself (leave aside for now that these included pregnant women in his congregation whom he sternly instructed against their wishes on matters of abortion and adoption.)

But is it enough? Is this really what the Bexley voter was looking for, a declaration of the joys of being a good family man? Voters are wondering why this man wants to become their president, and the best that Romney seems to have on offer is a noblesse-oblige notion that a suffering country needs his turnaround talents. There are a couple problems with this rationale, though. For one thing, Romney started running for president in 2007, back when the economy, at least superficially, was in better shape. Then there is the fact that the economy now seems to be gradually on the mend. If the patient continue to get better, will Dr. Romney suddenly declare that he is no longer needed and go home? Doubtful. This puts me in mind of a fine line by the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger, with whom I rarely agree. A few months back, he wrote: “The enthusiasm flowing to [Chris] Christie came from the same people who had hoped to see Congressman Paul Ryan in the race, or Mitch Daniels or Jeb Bush. All of them made clear they understood we had arrived at a big moment for the nation. Mr. Romney, by contrast, leaves the impression that the country has arrived at his big moment.”

It also puts me in mind of the conclusion I came to in my recent review of the The Real Romney, the fine new biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman. Namely, that Romney might have been a better politician if he had not followed his father’s advice and gone off to make a big bundle of dough before bestowing himself on the electorate:

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 [1994] 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?

At the risk of being too blunt about it, it just might be that years slicing and dicing companies for enormous gain leave you with relatively little to offer when a man in Bexley, Ohio asks you to show what’s inside of you.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

amacgillis@tnr.com

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